An East Coast visionary with a bit of an image problem

August 22, 2003

For Susan Sontag, being a writer gives her permission to interrogate the world, but perversely in her critique of photography she accepts too much and asks too little, argues Mary-Ann Kennedy.

It is 30 years since Susan Sontag's first published essay concerning photography, 25 years since the publication of her compelling series of essays On Photography. The intervening years have seen innumerable articles, by countless critics, around photography. And yet it is still On Photography, alongside Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida and John Berger's Ways of Seeing, that is a first-stop must-read for any serious student of photography. On Photography demanded that we take photographs seriously, that the plethora of images out there were innocent neither individually nor collectively. So a new book and lecture that purported to move the argument on was long awaited.

Perhaps this is the problem. Having waited 25 years, it is all too tempting to then damn something for not being what one so desperately wishes it to be. In her THES- sponsored lecture at the Edinburgh Festival last week, Sontag insisted that her latest book was not a sequel to On Photography and that it was not about photography at all. She suggested instead that Regarding the Pain of Others was really a bouillon cube of work to which the reader is to add water to supplement and further illustrate - a speculative book about how we think about reality, how we take it in, to what extent we can know or engage with it.

And yet photography appears on the first page of the book as well as on most of the subsequent pages. The first chosen reading of last week's lecture quoted directly from On Photography. Sontag is adamant that she wanted to "write something about war", but it is issues around imagery that continually intervene. It is hard not to imagine that, having written so eloquently on photography, serious frustration has set in about an apparent lack of development of the viewers' relationship to imagery. Sontag wants something from photography - otherwise why continue to bring it up, only to dismiss it?

There was apparent confusion for the audience as well. Having said that "pictures stop thinking, they short-circuit us thinking seriously, we value entertainment", Sontag also made the far more interesting point that "the problem isn't in the image - space for being serious is not reserved within society". Which makes just as problematic her assertion that we learn through text, not image. Her insistence on the effects of media control of the image not extending in the same proportion to the written word is at odds with her acknowledgement that when she "originally wrote about photography, I was not political enough". Those intervening years have been filled with critiques of the politics of representation, of the textual nature of the photograph and the production of meaning involved in the consumption of anything.

Fortunately, a talk the morning after the lecture set out parameters for readdressing Sontag's intentions. "A walking library, a work in progress, an instance of thought in performance, a writer who's in a league of her ownI there are some critics who close off debate, but Susan Sontag opens it. She is the kind of critic who breeds creative thought, thus giving rise to further responses, further writing" is how she was introduced by the writer Hilary Mantel. Sontag went on to speak about why she became a writer, of how she felt that writing was a way of paying attention to the world - that through writing she would become the vehicle of important ideals that needed expression. She spoke about being immensely curious about the world, that being a writer gives one permission to interrogate the world and how through this she hoped to become wiser. She stressed that she never takes photographs, that it never occurs to her to carry a camera, and yet as a child she wished she could be invisible, could see without being seen.

Sontag's commitment to writing is apparent, her belief in the written text intense. She is determined that reading should deepen one's sympathies and extend ethical experience: that we have a moral obligation to be intelligent. So her frustration with what she sees as "photography" is inevitable. Perversely, she accepts too much and asks too little. In Regarding the Pain of Others, having highlighted gender issues through the central use of Virginia Woolf's essay Three Guineas, she resolutely ignores all feminist critique of representation. Her "photography" is predominantly photojournalistic, often of an accepted canon, and not interrogated to the extent one would expect.

"A photograph has only one language and is destined potentially for all," Sontag writes in Regarding the Pain of Others. Straitjacketing photography in a narrow reality/evidential debate causes confusion about other insights and gives the impression that she is being contradictory. Having condemned photography's feeble attempt at accessing reality, Sontag later bemoans the loss of Life magazine and "its revelatory pictures of war". Photographs cannot engage us with reality, yet photojournalists' supposed jettisoning of an earlier tradition of staged images is seen as a loss. Jeff Wall's highly staged photograph of a Red Army patrol in Afghanistan, Dead Troops Talk, in which a complex network of glances that cross without meeting shows that it has been set up by the photographer and is in fact a composite of several shots, is described in detail and then admonished for not going far enough. And yet, she insists, we couldn't understand anyway.

But then this is the role of the critic: to bring to our attention something of intrinsic importance. For Sontag at the moment, that is war, and, for her, images both mobilise war and short-circuit thinking about war.

The seemingly contrary musings are there to draw attention to those very contradictions. And our relationship to photography is at the centre.

Despite her denial that we can learn from photography, she can't let go of the possibility that it has something to offer. It is tempting to imagine Sontag as a photographer. Her medium would be the cultural sniping of Jo Spence, whose snapshots push us to engage and ask more of photography. We live in a visual society. We need to demand more of the visual.

In fact, we need to demand more of ourselves in relation to the visual.

Sontag insists that the photograph cannot educate, yet we still do not truly address photography in education. The writing and reading that is so crucial to Sontag's thesis on engaging with the world is dealt with from childhood. We learn to make distinctions, we are encouraged to make varying demands on different forms of writing. Every year at the Edinburgh Book Festival an author writing for children will make the point that they write for highly attentive readers who wish or need to understand things. Last year, several authors spoke of the sharp rise in sales of children's books concerned with anything non-western post-9/11. Where is the education in the visual at this early stage?

To engender a demand for more from photography there has to be an engagement with the possibility that it has more to offer. One of Sontag's central concerns is that photography's relationship with reality is such that it can be perceived as replacing reality. We need to learn to demand more of it than that. Sontag writes that photographs build our sense of the present and immediate past - that although there is no such thing as collective memory, there is "collective instructionI What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened, with the pictures that lock the story in our minds. Ideologies create substantiating archives of images, representative images, which encapsulate common ideas of significance and trigger predictable thoughts, feelings." We so readily say we don't believe what we see, yet we seldom interrogate the image beyond the simplest form of "is it true?" To be held within the frame limits the possibilities of imagery, at the same time denying the potential of photography. Our continued concern over and celebration of literacy rarely extends to our visual illiteracy.

Sontag wants photography to be other than what she perceives it still to be. That is the role of the critic. Having opened the debate in On Photography, she sees little shift 25 years on. In the wider field, she has missed some crucial points. But it remains a timely critique, if only by virtue of its repetitiveness. We still need to make space for being serious about photography. The end of On Photography calls for "an ecology not only of real things but of images as well". As ecological concerns are too often sidestepped by recycling, thus justifying the rise of useless objects, so we too continue to recycle rather than interrogate images. Towards the end of Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag asks if "perhaps too much value is assigned to memory, not enough to thinking". She felt she had important things to say, but photography kept intruding. Until we make serious space for thinking about photography, it will.

Mary-Ann Kennedy is a lecturer in photography, film and imaging at Napier University.

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