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Megan Wilkerson English 118c Fall 2012


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WILKERSON

Visual Literacy in the Digital Age

+ PLATO’S CAVE IN

CONTENTS:

“IT ALL STARTED WITH ONE ESSAY—ABOUT SOME OF THE PROBLEMS, AESTHETIC AND MORAL, POSED BY THE OMNIPRESENCE OF PHOTOGRAPHED IMAGES; BUT THE

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INTRODUCTION

THREE EVIDENCE

MORE I THOUGHT ABOUT WHAT PHOTOGRAPHS ARE, THE MORE COMPLEX AND SUGGESTIVE THEY BECAME”- SONTAG

FIVE

SIX

MEGAN WILKERSON

TOURISM

NONINTERVENTION

SEVEN DESENSITIZATION

PROFESSOR STEFANS ENGLISH 118C 14 DECEMBER 2012

INTRODUCTION Susan Sontag’s collection of essays entitled “On Photography” has been accused of being everything from “prophetic genius” to “melodrama posing as criticism.” Many of the statements Sontag makes can be considered outrageous, offensive, and cynical. Critics have contemplated the reason Sontag entitled her collection “On Photography” as opposed to “Against Photography,” given the lack of English 118

EIGHT DEHUMANIZATION

NINE

IMAGE-JUNKIES

positive sentiment she presents on the subject, which she argues can be dehumanizing and desensitizing in some cases. Nevertheless, her innovative and controversial commentary on the subject revolutionizes the way we view photography as she expands on the ways in which the proliferation and popularity of photography has changed and continues to change the way we interact with the world and its experiences. 2


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Visual Literacy in the Digital Age

“HUMANKIND LINGERS UNGENERATELY IN PLATO’S CAVE, STILL REVELING, ITS AGE-OLD HABIT, IN MERE IMAGES OF THE TRUTH”

PHOTOGRAPHY AS EVIDENCE “The inventory started in 1839

way we view what is around

photographs

and since then just about

us, and even determining what

Holocaust victims from Nazi

everything

we choose to look at. One of

concentration camps. We have

photographed, or so it seems.”

the

of

learned about these atrocities,

Susan Sontag begins her essay

photography, Sontag argues, is

but seeing them has a much

by describing photographs as

its power to furnish evidence:

greater impact. These horrific

a collection of the world. This

“Something we hear about, but

images are now part of our

inventory

she

doubt, seems proven when

inventory

describes has taught us a “new

were shown a photograph of

evidence to these events.

visual code,” changing the

it.”

English 118

has

of

images

been

greatest

Consider

strengths

the

of

and

emaciated

serve

as

alarming

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Visual Literacy in the Digital Age photography

achievements and milestones

photographic project from the

should serve as evidence that

in life is something that we

1930’s would take dozens of

something

that

naturally want to savor. Sontag

pictures of their subjects until

something exists, or that it

argues that it is suspicious for a

they felt they had captured just

existed at one point in time.

family to not have a camera in

the

“The

their

upheld

To

Sontag,

happened,

camera

record

household,

namely

right

expression

their

notions

about

this reason,

families with young children.

poverty.

photography is detrimental to

The action of photographing

Lange’s “Migrant Mother”, is

Beaurocratic societies.

ceremonies and special events

the

has

images.

justifies.” For

become

one

of

the

most

Perhaps

that

prolific

Dorothea of

these

components of the ceremony itself. For example, it would be very uncommon to attend a ceremony today that didn’t include

some

photographing.

sort

of

Evidence

provides us with the truth, and while many photographers are concerned with the truth, they are equally concerned with the relationship between art and It serves as a form of control and

surveillance:

”The

camera record incriminates.” Sontag

describes

photography as “a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and

a

tool

of

power.”

truth. Sontag describes how the members of the Farm Security

Administration “EVEN WHEN

PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE

“In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure

to

photographers

another, are

always

imposing standards on their subjects.”

Sontag

explains

that, even though the camera

MOST CONCERNED WITH

serves to capture reality in a

MIRRORING REALITY,

sense, not merely interpret it,

THEY ARE STILL

photographs

can

be

Photography and family life

HAUNTEDBY TACIT

considered an interpretation of

go hand-in-hand, because the

IMPERATIVES OF TASTE

the world as a painting or a

memorializing English 118

of

AND CONSCIENCE.”

drawing would be. 4


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Visual Literacy in the Digital Age

“THE MAN ADJUSTING LENSE TO TAKE JUST RIGHT FRAME OF HER SUFFEREING, MIGHT AS WELL BE A PREDATOR, ANOTHER VULTURE ON THE SCENE.”

HIS THE JUST

(RIGHT) THIS POSE WITH THE LEANING TOWER OF PISA HAS BECOME PROLIFIC TO THE POINT OF CLICHE. HOW MANY PICTURES JUST LIKE THIS DO YOU THINK HAVE BEEN ADDED TO THE INVENTORY?

TOURISM & PHOTGRAPHY PHOTOGRAPHS AS A COLLECTION OF THE WORLD “A

way

of

certifying

taking

that comes with travelling. Many tourists,

photographs is also a way of refusing it—by

Sontag claims, feel more at ease when they

limiting

the

put a camera between themselves and what

photogenic, by converting experience to a

is unfamiliar to them. Photography is

search

another way to give shape and control to an

experience for

the

to

experience, a

photogenic,

search by

for

converting

experience into an image, a souvenir.” Tourism,

experience.

perhaps more than anything, adds to our

appeals to people handicapped by a

inventory of images. Yet Sontag argues that

ruthless work ethic—Germans, Japanese,

tourists don’t just take pictures while they are on

and Americas. Using a camera appeases the

vacation to use as indisputable photographic

anxiety that the work-driven feel about not

evidence of their visit. Photographs “also help

working when they are on vacation and

people to take possession of a space in which

supposed to be having fun. They have

they are insecure.” The act of taking pictures on

something to do that is like a friendly

a trip can alleviate some of the disorientation

imitation of work: they can take pictures.”

English 118

“The

method

especially

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PHOTOGRAPHY & NON-INTERVENTION fact that the photograph exists, it is evident that the photographer chooses the photograph. “Even though incompatible with intervention in a physical sense, using a camera is still a form of participation.” By photographic a subject or situation, Sontag argues, the photographer is not just passively observing, they are encouraging whatever is happening to keep happening. Kevin Carter was a South-African photojournalist who took this picture of a starving child and vulture in 1993. Although he won a Pulitzer Prize for this photograph, he was harshly criticized for taking the picture rather than helping the girl.

“THE MAN ADJUSTING HIS LENS TO TAKE JUST THE RIGHT FRAME OF HER SUFFERING, MIGHT JUST AS WELL BE A PREDATOR, ANOTHER VULTURE ON THE SCENE.” -ST. PETERSBURG TIMES

Sontag points out that photography is essentially an act of non-intervention. “The person who intervenes cannot record, the person who is recording cannot intervene.” In many cases, the photographer has the choice between the photograph and a life. Given the

Sontag essentially describes photography as having an inhumane aspect to it. ”To take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged… including, when that is the interest, another person’s pain or misfortune.”


Visual Literacy in the Digital Age

Especially shocking the

with

such

photographs

suffering

victimized,

and

one

of the

would

PHOTOGRAPHY & DESENSITIZATION “To suffer is one thing; another

Sontag

thing

is

living

accuses

with

the

pornography of the same

images

of

offense. She argues that “the

does

not

assume a strong emotional

photographed

reaction from the viewer.

suffering,

Yet Sontag explains how

necessarily

these images of horror that

conscience and the ability to

repeated viewings, just as

exist within our inventory is

be compassionate. It can also

the

which

strengthen

shock

of

atrocities

photographed wears

off

surprise

with and

problematic. “Photographs

bemusement felt the first

shock insofar as the show

time

something

novel.

Unfortunately, keeps

getting

partly

through

the

ante

raised— the

very

proliferation of such images of horror.” The amount of exposure to these types of images causes a certain

“Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more—and more. Images transfix. Images anesthetize.”

one

sees

a

pornographic movie wear off after one sees a few more.”

The

amount

of

suffering and horror in the inventory has given us a sense these

of

familiarity

images,

with

Sontag

describes. This familiarity

amount of desensitization.

makes the horrible seem

This

more ordinary.

emotional

reaction,

which Sontag refers to as our “quality of feeling” to images of the suffering, depends on the degree of our

familiarity

with

the

images. The more one is exposed photographs,

to

certain the

less

shocking it is each time they view a similar image. English 118

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Visual Literacy in the Digital Age

THE DEHUMANIZING ASPECT OF PHOTOGRAPHY Sontag claims that the camera is sold as a sort of “predatory weapon.” Of course, the camera is not capable of killing, yet Sontag refers to being photographed as a “soft murder” as she describes the dehumanizing aspect of photography: “There is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them the can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically photographs

possessed.” taken

Consider by

the

paparazzi

photographers. They make a career out of what Sontag calls the “soft murder.” They intrude, trespass, distort, and exploit. In this sense,

they

are

predators

cameras, always violating.

with

their

In her essay, Sontag examines some of Diane Arbus’ ideas on the nature of photography, namely its “naughty” nature. “I always thought of photography as a naughty thing to do—that was one of my favorite things about it. Arbus describes that when she first tried photography she “felt very perverse.” Yet Sontag argues that to take a photograph requires some distance between the subject and the photographer. “The camera doesn’t rape, or even possess, though it may presume, intrude trespass, distort, exploit, and, at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate—all activities that, unlike the sexual push and shove, can be conducted from a distance, and with some detachment.”

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Visual Literacy in the Digital Age

THE NEW GENERATION OF IMAGE-JUNKIES “Photography implies that we

irresistible form of image

know about the world if we

pollution.” Sontag points

accept

camera

out that we don’t realize

records it. But this is the

the extent to which we are

opposite of understanding,

bombarded

which

photographs.

it

as

starts

the

from

not

with Today,

accepting the world as it

especially in advertising

looks.” Sontag describes the

and social media, images

great value placed on images

control

in our society. We don’t

Imagine if today we were

realize just how much we rely

cut off from all ability to

on photographs to give us

capture images. Virtually

information. “They tell one

every aspect of our lives

what there is; they make an

would change.

inventory.” explains

Yet

that

and

direct.

Santag

there

is

a

disconnect there is another side

to

people

photography use

more

that as

a

“fiction.” “Needing to have reality

confirmed

experience

and

enhanced

by

photographs is an aesthetic consumerism

to

which

everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens

into

junkies; English 118

image-

it is the most

“Mallarme said that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book. Today everything exists to end in a photograph.” 9


Susan Sontag FInal