Susan Sontag vs John Berger

I am presenting a paper on photography and literature at an academic seminar next Monday at Hong Kong Baptist University, and this is part of what I am going to say:

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This is what Susan Sontag says about photography:

like many mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power … Photographs document sequences of consumption carried on outside the view of family, friends and neighbors … Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs. (On Photography)

I am thinking of people I know who like to photograph their food before they eat, or of parents who take photographs of their children while they’re playing the piano at home or of their families in front of the Eiffel Tower. There’s nothing wrong with doing these things (I do them myself all the time), but after a while, if we claim to be serious about photography as an art form and yet this is all we do with photography, then it no longer allows us to see anything new. It allows us to see only what we already see, putting us in a state of self-consuming and self-affirming narcissism, saying, “Look at me, look at me”.

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But a lot of what Sontag says are provocations to thought as well:

Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks. (On Photography)

What if we pursue photography with humility, as a way of looking at things differently? John Berger has made the point that “Every photograph presents us with two messages: a message concerning the event photographed and another concerning the shock of discontinuity” (Another Way of Telling).  He goes on to say that “Between the moment recorded and the present moment of looking, there is an abyss” ((Another Way of Telling).

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The abyss is when the street photograph gives us something we find hard to accept. We look, and look again, and we struggle with the meaning of the scene.

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Perhaps, then, this is the moment we enter into the realm of critique…

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