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HomeFashionWhat would Susan Sontag say? • Fred Ritchin

What would Susan Sontag say? • Fred Ritchin

Our intention with the 7th edition of the PhotoVogue Festival is to start a conversation around what we will call “The Overexposure Paradox”. We would like to provoke a debate on how the ubiquity of images shapes our ability to feel, read and understand images, and the world that surrounds us.
The theme will be explored with essays by a diverse range of intellectuals in the days leading up to the PhotoVogue festival that will culminate in live discussions at Base during the event.

“Looking at how many images are uploaded online every day, how many are consumed in our phones, devices where our eyes linger on an image no longer than 0.05 seconds before resuming the scrolling, I asked myself what would Susan Sontag say today? 
The “normalizing” effect that this repeated exposure produces in relation to the content of the images can be of two opposite natures. On one hand it could be dangerous and cruel when it regards the images of suffering, on the other hand it could be used in pushing for a more diverse, just visual world. 
Our intention with this edition of the Festival is to start a conversation around what we will call ‘The Overexposure Paradox’. We would like to provoke a debate on how the ubiquity of images shapes our ability to feel, read and understand images, and the world that surrounds us.” 
by Alessia Glaviano, Head of Global PhotoVogue and Director of PhotoVogue Festival. 

Today we present the essay by Fred Ritchin.

The Photograph, Compromised

Painting used to be compared to photography for its uniqueness, the “aura of the original” as Walter Benjamin famously described it in 1936. Photographs, on the other hand, were mass produced and considered more important for what they recorded rather than for how they recorded it, bolstered by the myth that the camera never lies. As Charles Baudelaire characterized photography in 1859, arguing against considering it as an art but more as a “a very humble servant” of the sciences and arts, “let it be the secretary and clerk of whoever needs an absolute factual exactitude in his profession—up to that point nothing could be better.”

Much, of course, has changed since then, with photography having been widely recognized as an art form for many decades. Quantitatively, however, the billions of images now produced daily in the digital era severely undercut any sense of their uniqueness. As William Ewing put it fifteen years ago in his exhibition at the Musée de l’Elysée, “We Are All Photographers Now.”

Furthermore, Benjamin’s concept of the “aura of the original” becomes anachronistic once the copy of an image becomes indistinguishable from its source, as is now the case in the digital era. Given the current plethora of imagery, one can also argue that the “aura” of not only the image but of that which it depicts are largely effaced, transformed at times into “branding.” And as synthetic images that resemble photographs but do not require cameras are fabricated in greater numbers via artificial intelligence systems, the witnessing function of the photograph will most probably further deteriorate.

As a result, iconic photographs rarely exist today, with few images able to emerge from the billions produced that command a societal focus, as was the case in the last century when newspapers and magazines could highlight certain photographs on the printed page, lending them their journalistic authority. The advent of social media has turned nearly every photograph into an opinion that can be refuted, rather than a referent establishing the visible facts of a situation.

This rupture requires our attention. For example, recalling photography’s previous ability to establish what occurred elsewhere, many in the United States are clamoring for photographs to be released that show the pulverized bodies of young schoolchildren killed by gunmen with military-grade assault rifles. They argue that this will bring society to its senses and lead to more rational gun laws. Their arguments often reference other such images, including those published in 1955 of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s body that was photographed after having been beaten and lynched by American racists, or the 1972 photograph of 9-year-old Kim Phuc burning from napalm in Vietnam, both of which are considered to have been powerful stimulants for societal change.

In 1945, before these two photographs were published, Susan Sontag commented on her own experience of. viewing photographs of the Bergen-Belsen and Dachau concentration camps for the first time: “Nothing I have seen—in photographs or in real life—ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously. Indeed, it seems plausible to me to divide my life into two parts, before I saw those photographs (I was twelve) and after, although it was several years before I understood fully what they were about.”

Over seventy-five years ago, Sontag and many others could be moved by photographs of those suffering, dead and dying. But today, immersed in a torrent of imagery along with other media, the relationship with photographs is markedly different, so that what Susan Sontag explored in her seminal book, On Photography, seems in many essential ways to describe a previous medium, one that remains largely in our rearview mirrors.

As the American critic Neal Postman pointed out similarly, in this instance concerning the impact of books, comparing Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World with George Orwell’s more celebrated 1949 novel, 1984: “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books,” Postman wrote. “What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.”

In this context, adding the graphic imagery of the casualties of school shootings to the media ecosphere might add to the “passivity and egoism” that Huxley described. It would also undoubtedly lead to more traumatization of parents and children, and the photographs would undoubtedly be used by some to advocate for more guns in in the hands of schoolteachers and others. As Nelba Márquez-Greene, whose young daughter Ana Grace was killed in a school shooting nearly a decade previously, eloquently wrote in a recent New York Times article: “After the Uvalde [Texas] shooting, my inbox was flooded with requests from allies and advocates for autopsy photos of my daughter. What did they think a photo could do that the truth of the tragedy had not already conveyed? Do we really expect the same legislators who watched the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 and met it with tepid rebuke to somehow be moved by images of my murdered child or those of other parents?” Her conclusion: “Our country’s problems with guns will not be fixed with images of dead children.”

To protect the families who must identify the dead children, authorities often will not show them these photographs, preferring to use DNA testing to spare the families the sight of the battered bodies of their loved ones. In another era the widely published depictions of the two victimized children, Emmett Till and Kim Phuc, were able to be more respectful of the individuals depicted due in large part to the singularity of the image, as well as how it was contextualized as important, specific, and unique. In the age of mass shootings and vast amounts of imagery, with enormous numbers of people able to re-publish and re-contextualize the photographs, such depictions have become, unfortunately, more problematic and less affecting.

We can, however, still imagine such atrocities without photographs, and their absence should not stop us from finding the personal and political will to respond. As Márquez-Greene suggests, writing about her own devastating loss: “Lower your gaze and do the work without asking for any more blood from me.”

Picture Credit

CLOUD #865

Hough Circle Transform, 2019

Dye sublimation print

60×48 in.

© Trevor Paglen

Courtesy of the Artist and Pace Gallery



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