Photography — Art, Evidence, or something else?

What is photography? And what is its purpose? It is to document memories? To record useful information? To create art? To evoke emotions?

According to “Platos Cave” by Susan Sontag, it is all of the above and more. In this reading, I will summarize and comment on the points Sontag has made in this reading.

Art or Evidence?

While photographs can be purely educational, they can be a form of art as well. Take for example, your photo ID. There is nothing artistic about it, but it exists solely to record information. Now take a portrait photograph, a landscape photograph, or one like the picture above. This is when the photographer, consciously or unconsciously, alters or frames the photo in some way, either simply to their personal aesethetic liking, or to convey a message. While paintings are entirely an interpretation, photography, on the other hand, lies in the middle.

Photography’s Relationship to Travel

When you think of the word “travel”, what is the next word that comes to mind? Vacation? Relaxation? Adventure? For me, I imagine a tourist with a big camera hanging by their neck. Could you imagine going on a trip and not taking a single photo of your journey? I bet not.

Photography and travel go hand-in-hand. It’s almost a human compulsion to record evidence of one’s successes and adventures, and a vacation is no exception to that. In a way, not only does photography prove as evidence that a trip has been made, but it also offers some relief from the anxiety one might feel when taking a moment to relax and not work. A workaholic on their day off can feel like they are doing something productive while on vacation — that is, they can take pictures.

The Connection to the Patriarchy

The way we talk about photography — “loading” a memory card, “aiming” a camera and “shooting” a photograph —isn’t worded in such a way for no reason. Advertising a camera has become almost synonymous with selling a firearm; it is fully automated and ready to spring. This way of advertising almost personifies the camera with masculine, straight forward and desirable qualities. On top of this, photographing, particularly without the subject’s consent, is not far from voyeurism and violation. Many have and will continue to take photos of people unknowingly to satisfy a selfish fantasy of theirs and it is this fact that advertisers have bought into to sell cameras and further perpetuate this distasteful behavior. Here is an example of this:

One can argue that everything bought and sold is catered to men and while that may be true, photography is undeniably an artform and hobby catered to men by society.

Photography for Nostalgia

Many times, people take photos to remember things. People they love, memories they cherish, places they’ve seen and won’t see forever — photography and nostalgia go hand in hand. With photography, the subject is immortalized and frozen in time. Through pictures, we can preserve the past.

Morals and Photography

Through the act of photography comes a great opportunity for transparency to one’s morals. It is through photography we can see someone’s true intentions. Are they photographing strangers to fulfill a sexual fantasy, as I mentioned above? Maybe there is a car accident nearby, does one stop and take a picture instead of intervene and offer help? Even the sight of a photograph can have an impact on a person’s emotions and empathy. Seeing a picture of a group of people suffering can ignite moral outrage. At the same time, a constant viewing of such images can desensitize one’s empathy to such subjects. Through photography alone, we can impact and gain insight on people’s values.

Sontag makes some interesting points in “Platos Cave”. While there are many more observations to make when it comes to photography’s societal impact, I hope this reading gave you more insight on what photography is and why people like myself are so invested in it.

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