“Life is a movie; death is a photograph.”Susan Sontag, from her first published novel The Benefactor (1969)
We must look at our surroundings with a keen eye otherwise every day just becomes transactional in nature.
Writes Susan Sontag in On Photography: “Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it, and participating in public event comes more and more to be equivalent to looking at it in photographed form.”
At the same time, we must ration our shots. Infinite digital film can turn a photographer into a visual hoarder of half-truths.
Photographs also lie
Images are a kind of confidence trick lacking truth serum. “The camera is just as capable of lying as the typewriter,” wrote Bertolt Brecht in War Primer.
The paradox of photography is that copying reality excuses the inspection of its meaning. All context gets reserved in the process of life, unfrozen from the stillness of the lens.
Most people start something until it becomes something else. But Susan Sontag stuck with her creative impulse. When The Paris Review asked her where she came up with writing prompts, she said:
From the beginning I always know what something is going to be; every impulse to write is born of an idea of form, for me. To begin I have to have the shape, the architecture. I can’t say it better than Nabokov did: “The pattern of the thing precedes the thing.”
This runs contrary to the belief that we don’t know what to think until we scribble it down first. For Sontag, she wrote the book in her head so all she needed to do was solidify it on paper.
In an interview with The Paris Review, Susan Sontag revealed what helped her get motivated to write:
Getting started is partly stalling, stalling by way of reading and of listening to music, which energizes me and also makes me restless. Feeling guilty about not writing. There’s a wonderful remark of Henry James: “Nothing is my last word on anything.” There’s always more to be said, more to be felt.
We’re never finished, only stalling. Postponement, aka the Zeigarnik Effect is a catalyst for productivity.
A professional author may complete books but the act of writing resumes.
Wrote Susan Sontag in her seminal book On Photography:
Photographing is essentially an act of non-intervention. Part of the horror of such memorable coups of contemporary photojournalism as the pictures of a Vietnamese bonze reaching for the gasoline can, of a Bengali guerrilla in the act of bayoneting a trussed-up collaborator, comes from the awareness of how plausible it has become, in situations where the photographer has the choice between a photograph and a life, to choose the photograph. The person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene.
A lot of photographers take heat for capturing their subjects in life-threatening situations. Shouldn’t they be doing something to help the situation rather than documenting its demise?
Photographers are journalists too. Without their pictures, we can’t relive the event. They’re doing their job.
The main gripe with most witness photography is with the amafessional, who like any other citizen journalist has a camera phone in their pocket. Except, we see too often prioritize the camera over what should be the human instinct to assist.
Photography can be an act of selfishness, especially when the object is suffering.
To take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged (at least for as long as it takes to get a “good” picture), to be in complicity with whatever makes a subject interesting, worth photographing —including, when that is the interest, another person’s pain or misfortune.
Social networks compel people to see. People go on vacation just so they can share pictures to their Instagram feed. Any museum that bars photography is somehow instantly boring. Remove Instagram, and the world becomes a lot less interesting for most folks.
The photographer’s role in emergency situations is complicated. When participation is voluntary, the camera offers a way to do something rather than nothing. The viewer’s discretion says a lot about their moral priorities.
“For taste governs every free — as opposed to rote — human response. Nothing is more decisive. There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion – and there is taste in acts, taste in morality. Intelligence, as well, is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.”
— Susan Sontag
From the essay “Notes on Camp,” available in Against Interpretation: And Other Essays (1964)