Susan Sontag On Photography

As photography is a topic that I am relatively new to, I wanted to further my knowledge about the technicalities of photography and come to terms with the impact photography has in society. American writer Susan Sontag, who wrote extensively on photography in her book ‘On Photography’, is a collection of essays which explore the possibilities that photography enables. As Sontag describes is as “a progress of essays about the meaning and career of photographs.” (Sontag:1973)

Other than my desire to strengthen my awareness on photography, I was also drawn to Sontag for the another reason. Sontag was heavily involved in Human rights activism, partly covering equality for LGB which as she infused this passion into her works. Sontag immersed herself into becoming an Aids Activist, a current crisis in which she felt had a severely damaging impact on the representations of the LGB society that ‘unashamedly mobilised a collective identification with gay men'(Sontag:1977). Sontag raised awareness of the unfairly generated negative representation of gay men at a time where the main importance lay with issue of health, not on the social construction of gay men. At this point in the world the epidemic of Aids was a fairly new disease, providing more of a reason for heterosexual citizens to create an opposition against the morality of homosexual activity, encouraging further challenges to the people of various sexual orientations. Although today the presence of openly LGB people is more accepted -to an extent(depending of country, culture,religion etc), the Uk seem to have one of the more liberal outlooks to adopting their culture into modern day society. However I am still aware and feel that it is important to exhibit the challenges the LGB face in the supposed democratic society we live in, as it is evident through multiple news reports that they are still a target of discrimination due to their sexual orientation. I have picked Sontag as a key theorist for my project as I believe that her association with gay activism in relation to photography is extremely relevant and influential in terms of helping my understanding of how photographs are constructed in certain way to evoke specific ideals, which will help determine the methods of how I frame my photographs to exhibit my intentions.

A recent story concerning gay discrimination ending with a positive outcome:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-34665478

On Photography

Sontags writing on photography have enabled me to clarify and comprehend the purposes of photography. I have selected a few detailed quotes that I came across in her book, which explain various facts/theories behind taking a photograph.

‘In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing. (Sontag:1977).’
 
I was drawn to Sontag’s fascination with photography as a platform for democracy as she mentions photographs provide us with ‘a right to observe’. This creates the notion that it potentially undermines authority by serving us with the ‘right’ to view what we ‘deserve’ to see. This quote emphasises how photography eliminates hierarchy between the viewer and the subject or photographer (depending on the context the photograph is taken in). Regarding the photographs I intent to take, this element of welcoming a democratic approach is suitable for my project as it follows my aim to promote awareness of the effect that modern day media has on the personal lives of the LGB community- which is something that people should be conscious of as it is not regularly publicised.

‘Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern. Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood. To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power.’
My project aims partly to add to the ‘thickening’ of the environment through broadcasting individual opinions of how they interpret media representations of LGB people in an apparently liberal space. Again this pursues the idea of photography as a form democratising issues which are not conventionally reported on. In a way this theory promotes power as Sontag argues, providing the public with knowledge- informing and educating the spectators whilst having an ability to shape their viewpoints. The power a photograph holds in the capability of transforming peoples opinions furthermore it can be used in negative ways- for example propaganda images manipulated by governments. Of course my images propose a positively fair/unbiased insight to the LGB individuals, however I want to draw attention to how elements such as positioning and framing and can drastically modify the interpretation of an image.

Example: Kennard Philipps

Messages Image(1980779532)-1

‘To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.’ By exposing a subject through the lens, Sontag argues that the photographer captures their sense of reality by immersing themselves with the subject in order to provide the viewers with segment of the beings presence, to represent their version of reality. As the photographer/filmmaker for my project, this theory is central to my method of photography as depending on the subjects personality, the appearance of the subjects will vary in the photographs. What I feel is necessary to display will rely on the subjects viewpoints and responses I receive when interviewing them. I do not want to represent the subjects as something fake through the photographs, I was to present their truths, therefore it is vital there is some diversity in subjects appearances in my photography to reflect the variation of the subjects opinions regarding LGB representation in the media which follow in the video. As my objective is not to recreate, but to capture my subjects reality through video footage of an account of reflections.

‘The subsequent industrialization of camera technology only carried out a promise inherent in photography from its very beginning: to democratize all experiences by translating them into images.’ Sontag has stressed that the omnipresences of cameras has increased the consumption of images, this progression she believes has not altered the value of the images, as although they may fade away, they will have once been enjoyed. Behind every image holds a meaning, even if they do not seem to be of much important, this still abides by the freedom to image distribution, contributing to the democratisation of imagery. Capturing experiences and ‘translating’ them into photographs is the style of photography my project intends to mirror, by taking images of people who talk about their experiences. Although this does not necessarily capture ‘the’ experience, the photograph should be a reflection of the experiences they recall on. Whether the nature of the responses be good or bad I want the photograph to encapsulate these feeling presented through the filmed video, to create a visual consolidation of their emotions into on photograph.

To collect photographs is to collect the world.’ 

Sontag, S. (1973) On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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