Susan Sontag

Edgy Youngsters and Their Selfies

Susan Sontag’s timeless piece “On Photography” explains why current society is obsessed with pictures.

Thanks to social media and adventure programs gaining popularity on national TV, many youngsters are now eager to explore beautiful Indonesia. Sadly, most of them are only on photo-ops just to satisfy their insatiable egos.

A recent case that went viral in 2015 was the discovery of an amaryllis garden that offered a taste of Europe in a tropical country. The garden was owned by a local in Java. As soon as photos of the location were spread, the garden saw a spike in visitors, most of them young and hungry and ignorant, thirsting for adventure on a low budget. Unfortunately, they, whom we refer to with the classist slur “alay”, were never taught basic etiquette, such as… don’t wreck stuff that’s not yours. For the sake of good selfies to post online, these youngsters destroyed a beautiful garden. They left the garden, leaving behind trampled flowers and a grieving caretaker.

So, why is our society obsessed with taking pictures at exotic locations? Why is the urge to photograph so hard to resist, especially when we live in an era where basically anyone has a camera? To answer this, I turn to the wisdom of Susan Sontag.

Forty years ago, an American writer, Susan Sontag, wrote down her thoughts on the development of photography in its early stages in the United States. Though being almost forty years-old, her thoughts still hold relevance today in a world where anyone has the ability to photograph. If she were alive today, I’m confident that she’ll be shaking her head in disbelief.

Her book, On Photography, is a collection of essays that record the development of photography as an art and cultural practice in the United States. Her most iconic essay, In Plato’s Cave, perhaps summarizes Sontag’s thoughts that humankind will never be able to escape Plato’s allegorical cave through photography.

She starts with:

Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth.

What is a camera? Is a camera merely a tool that we use to capture light and immortalize moments that have passed? Or is it much more than that? Sontag thinks that a camera is much more deadlier. Sontag places the camera in similar light to a pistol; but a pistol merely kills, while the camera does something even deadlier. The camera is the tool of a predator, it “changes” the subject that is photographed into an “object” that can be possessed. Just like a hunter lurking in the bushes with their Winchesters, the photographer is a predator walking around with their Hasselblads ready to “devour” moments that he thinks are appropriate and appeasing.

Sontag also thinks of the camera as authoritarian. The photos that we take are the ones we want; pieces of isolated reality that we choose to keep and remember, while others are nothing. As Sontag writes,

The photograph is a thin slice of space as well as time. In a world ruled by photographic images, all borders (“framing”) seems arbitrary. Anything can be separated, can be made discontinuous, from anything else: all that is necessary to frame the subject differently […] Photography reinforces a nominalist view of social reality as consisting of small units of an apparently infinite number […] Through photographs, the world becomes a series of unrelated, freestanding particles…

Aside from retaining memories, Sontag managed to successfully — and eerily— predict the condition of our current society that heavily relies on photos as a certificate of attendance. As the internet adage goes “Pics or it didn’t happen”, photos have become nothing more than “certificates” that show a person has attended an event or has experienced the fun. With the increase of social media and tourism, the camera has become a tool for pleasure-seekers to keep collecting… and collecting. People compete with one another about the amount of photos they have because whosoever has more photos, has more experience.

It seems positively unnatural to travel for pleasure without taking a camera along. Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had. Photographs document sequences of consumption carried on outside the view of the family, friends, neighbors. […] Taking photographs fills the same need for the cosmopolitans accumulating photograph-trophies of their boat trip up the Aliber Nile or their fourteen days in China…

Perhaps now we can answer the initial question: why is our society obsessed with photos?

Sontag may not have lived to see the social media boom. But at the end of her essay lies an eerie yet relevant conclusion to the condition of our society.

Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution. […] It would not be wrong to speak of people having a compulsion to photograph; to turn experience itself into a way of seeing. Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it, and participating in a public event comes more and more to be equivalent to looking at it in photographed form.

Perhaps now we have all the pieces of the puzzle. Our society requires evidence of their existence, and the more the evidence, the stronger their existence. On the case of the amaryllis garden, it is clear that the influence of social media on society has somehow increased the urge to prove the existence of the self (or in simple parlance, “a virtual presence”). This urge is in fact so strong, it compels people to go great lengths, to travel way beyond their comfort zones, to prove to the world that they are indeed alive and doing something.

If Descartes concluded that thinking was the essence of existence (cogito ergo sum), maybe it would now be more appropriate to say “photograph ergo sum”; I am in a photograph, therefore I exist. Let me finish this with a quote from Sontag’s essay once more,

Today everything exists to end up in a photograph.

Originally published at on November 29, 2015.

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