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What would Susan Sontag say? • Susie Linfield

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 Susie Linfield.

The young Irish novelist Sally Rooney, who was born in 1991, has sometimes been called the voice of her generation, and so it is illuminating to take note of the social world her characters inhabit. Her latest novel, “Beautiful World, Where are You,” features two 29-year old Irish women as its protagonists. Eileen and Alice are passionate about, and intensely committed to, their friendship–but. for most of the book, pretty aimless about everything else. Rooney often delineates the minute details of their lives–eating two pieces of buttered toast, the color and material of a sweater, the pattern on a tea towel–and a running theme of the book is the precise ways in which they access the outer world. Which is, of course, through their phones. Every day–many times a day!–they receive a random but incessant stream of social media messages, emails, news updates, and, of course, photographs. So do the other characters. Here is Felix, Alice’s sort-of boyfriend, whom she met on Tinder and is on holiday with her in Rome:

“Felix took out his phone and flicked over the camera app. . . He removed his headphones irritably and took a picture of the castle. For a few seconds then he held the phone out at arm’s length. . . and it was not clear from this gesture whether he was trying to see the existing image better, getting a new angle in order to take a different photograph, or simply thinking about letting the device slip soundlessly out of his hand and into the river. . . Felix wandered around with his headphones in, checking his messages, his social media timelines. In the news, a British politician had made an offensive statement about Bloody Sunday. Felix returned to the top of his timeline. . . . He didn’t even seem to read the new posts before pulling down to refresh again.”

And here is Eileen, tracking her former boyfriend, for whom she still pines:

“Opening a social media application, she keyed in the name ‘aidan lavin,’ . . . Eileen scrolled down mechanically, almost inattentively, to view the most recent updates, as if spurred by habit rather than spontaneous interest. . . . Two days previously, the user Actual Death Girl had posted a new photograph . . . [which] depicted the user with her arms around a man with dark hair. The man was tagged as Aidan Lavin. As she looked at this photograph, Eileen’s mouth came open slightly and then closed again. . . .The photograph had received thirty-four likes.”

It is hard to separate this haphazardness–a weird combination of distraction and obsession–from the depressing casualness of the characters’ lives: of their love affairs, their jobs, their political convictions. The characters are inundated with information; but what, exactly, do they know? They are inundated with images; but what, exactly, do they see? Much has been made of the “democratization” that the internet–social media, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook–presumably heralded, and in some sense it has. Surely the world has become more connected, larger, more capacious, and in certain ways more equal. (You, too, can become a TikTok star!) Yet a clear subtext of the book is the impossibility of democratic action–that is, of meaningful participation in a civic space where one meets, face to face, with fellow citizens in a spirit of equality and shared values. Eileen and Alice live in a mediated world, one whose inhabitants spend an inordinate amount of time chained to their phones: which function, in essence, as the new sun-gods.

Rooney, who defines herself as a Marxist, is too smart not to know that this is a problem of modern life–indeed, a disaster of modern life–and so are her characters. Despite the media’s talk of “Twitter revolutions” and “democratized images,” Alice and Eileen know that the prospects for collective political action are not good: The internet has simultaneously connected people and isolated them from each other, which may be its most insidious aspect. In an email to Alice, Eileen writes:

“I want to live differently, or if necessary to die so that other people can one day live differently. But looking at the internet, I don’t see many ideas worth dying for. The only idea on there seems to be that we should watch the immense human misery unfolding before us and just wait for the most immiserated, most oppressed people to turn around and tell us how to stop it. . . . But what if the conditions don’t generate the solution? What if we’re waiting for nothing, and all these people are suffering without the tools to end their suffering? . . . Really my problem is that I’m annoyed at everyone else for not having all the answers, when I also have none.”

And yet: Foolish mortals that we are, we do still search for answers, and photographs–however degraded by misuse, overuse, superficial use–remain a key part of that search. When we think of “Abu Ghraib,” we think of the torture photographs that American soldiers cruelly took and then callously distributed to each other. When we think of “George Floyd,” we think of Darnella Frazier’s phone video of his agonizingly slow murder. (Though these visuals, I would argue, should be our first thought, not our last.) When we think of the Syrian Civil War, we–or at least I–think of the “Caesar” photographs, 55,000 images taken by a police photographer. and then smuggled out of the country, which document President Bashar al-Assad’s horrific gulag of torture centers. Unlike the first two examples, however, Caesar’s photographs–which depicted prisoners with eyes gouged out, grievously mutilated, electrocuted, and starved to death–had zero political consequences, though they were shown in 2014 at the United Nations and to world leaders including then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Laurent Fabius, France’s Foreign Minister at the time. The difference, as Sontag would have reminded us, was the absence of political will–among both the left and the right–to care about, much less meaningfully address, the Syrian catastrophe. It is sometimes said that the Caesar photographs failed. But the photographs didn’t fail: We did. (A bright spot, however: Last year, the images were entered into evidence in the German trial of a Syrian refugee who was subsequently convicted of complicity in crimes against humanity.)

In the U.S. today, a debate rages about whether photographs of the 19 children murdered in the Uvalde, Texas mass shooting should be released. This is a difficult question: There is no doubt that this would traumatize their parents, and no doubt that the photographs would be reproduced on torture-porn and conspiracy-theory websites. To control an image is an impossible task, especially in the digital world in which we live. Yet many people, myself included, believe that Americans, and especially American politicians, should see–really see–how an assault rifle obliterates the face and shatters the body of a 10-year-old. (Many of the children were unrecognizable, and could be identified only through DNA.) This would not end the debate over guns, as the left-wing journalist Michael Moore once glibly claimed. Photographs don’t end debates, nor should they. But they might inject a much-needed dose of reality–of shock, of awe, of necessary horror, grief, and shame–into that debate: something that, at least sometimes, photographs, and only photographs, can do.

Susie Linfield, a professor of journalism at New York University, is the author of “The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence” (University of Chicago Press and Contrasto).

Credit photo:

Penelope Umbrico

54,1795 Suns from Sunsets from Flickr (Partial) 01/23/06, 2006

detail of 2000, 4inch x 6inch machine c-prints, courtesy the artist



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