On the recommendation of a friend, I recently read an article entitled ‘On photography’ by Susan Sontag – a well-known American writer, filmmaker, teacher and political activist. ‘On photography’ was written in 1977, and it originally appeared in the New York Review of Books as a series of essays. Sontag wrote about her views on the role of photography in capitalist societies. What struck me most about her essays was just how ‘ahead of their time’ they were, for they all read as highly relevant and topical to today. Sontag argued that the prolific use of photographic images established a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world. In the ‘selfie’ era in which we now seem to live, this seems quite fitting.
Sontag wrote about how photography as an art form – a practice limited to the arts – shifted as everyone seemed to be practising it. The rise of digital photography, with mobile phones and cameras that seem permanently glued to our hands, now means that almost an entire life can be documented. It has become a challenge now to take a picture which doesn’t include within it another person taking a picture, or posing for one. It makes you wonder whether anyone is actually paying attention to the actual site in question? Or is everyone just on a quest to fill their albums, to provide proof of their ‘great’ lives to friends and family. It seems this photographic obsession has almost destroyed the very idea of actually looking!
Sontag made the important and poignant point that photographs give the illusion of fact, that we should accept a picture as a true record of an event. But in fact, as Sontag argues, an image tells us very little about anything. She argues instead that the reality of the world is in its functions that must be explained in time. ‘Only that which narrates can make us understand.’ She maintained that any knowledge gained through photography would always be a kind of sentimentalism, a mere semblance of knowledge.
Photographs do not have fixed meanings, they are constantly being negotiated. Sontag argued that ‘our seeing and our photographing of places and of people is socially constructed and institutionally controlled’. This is most explicit in the use of photography to classify people in terms of race and class, and in our obsession with ‘the other’. In preferring how a picture should look, using one exposure or filter over another, standards are always being imposed on the subject – photographs are an interpretation of the world. Sontag argued that because of this, there is aggression implicit in every use of the camera. ‘the photograph is to appropriate the thing being photographed, it means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world, that feels like knowledge and therefore like power.’
Reading Sontag has been a timely reminder of the importance of relooking at classic texts in influential journals that may still need popularising. Her work is significant for all those interested in tourism, which will forever seem linked with photography. Photographs play an integral part in tourism from the initial marketing and promotions of places through to the production of souvenirs. Cameras are an essential part of the equipment of the average tourist. In his book on ‘The Tourist gaze’ (1990), Urry spoke about this phenomenon as constituting a ‘self-reinforcing closed circle of representation’ in which tourists’ photographs both reflect and inform destination images.
Photographs imply some kind of possession of a past and help us to take possession of a space in which we feel insecure. For the anxious tourist, the photograph offers indisputable evidence that the trip was made and that fun was had. It is almost as if travel has become a strategy for accumulating photographs. By placing the camera between oneself and whatever is in front of one, you give shape to your experience, you stop, take a picture and move on. It has been reduced to a banal act.
Photography has become so ubiquitous on holidays that it has spawned a new range of rules and regulations that are now spelt out with the same frequency and regularity as those relating to health and safety. Signs forbidding or permitting cameras have sprung up on most sites, adding to the ‘litter’ of signs that we see in modern life. Increasing concern with privacy and child protection has, however, curtailed some of the profligacy of camera work. And now at last it has become common to seek permission to take photographs or to use them in publications. The town of Nazareth in the Columbian Amazon have gone so far as to ban tourists altogether as one resident proclaimed ‘tourists can’t distinguish between the wildlife and the Amazon’s residents, snapping photos of indigenous families as if they were another animal…. ‘Tourists come and shove a camera in our faces,”…. “Imagine if you were sitting in your home and strangers came in and started taking photos of you. You wouldn’t like it.” (Muse, 2011)
When Sontag first wrote, power seemed in the hands of the photographer, yet what we are now also familiar with is the power of ‘the reverse gaze’, something that tourists are learning to fear. When taking ‘cute’ photographs of colourful, ‘natives’ in ‘costume’ when abroad, some tourists may now feel some embarrassment; they may have a sense of the strangeness of what they are doing, they may have an awareness of the fragility of their power. In her discussion of power, Sontag noted that ‘photographs alter and enlarge our notion of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe’. Taking pictures is a way of tacitly – often explicitly – encouraging whatever is going on to keep on happening, to be complicit with what makes a photograph interesting, even if that interest is at the misfortune of someone else. (Gillespie, 2006)
I am reminded of the Mursi tribe in Ethiopia, who alter their bodies, put plates in their lips and big rings in their ears. Whilst this was once a cultural practice, it is a ‘tradition’ that is now arguably being kept alive by the interest of the tourists, who come seeking that image. In the Film ‘Framing the other’ one Mursi women states “every day they come and take pictures of us and I don’t know why, I don’t know what they are going to do with these pictures.” The same will be true, to some degree or another of all cultures: you need to be aware of what you are incidentally encouraging and how you are engaging with the subject.
‘Framing the other’ is a documentary about a tourist whose comfortable ideas about taking photographs of ‘exotic’ tribal people in Ethiopia are shaken by her encounter with a Mursi woman. Tourism Concern will be showing this documentary on (22/06/16).
For more on photography see: