“To photograph someone is sublimated murder”

I have started reading On Photography by Susan Sontag a couple of weeks ago, and came across a rather interesting, if unexpected, idea.

For me, it started with the following extract: “The camera doesn’t rape, or even possess, though it may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and, at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate […]”

Of course, it’s not a new idea that we can exploit people, intrude into their everyday lives and distort reality however we see fit by using a camera. But assassinate? Even if we do as Sontag suggests and stretch that metaphor, it’s still likely that most of us will either dismiss the idea altogether or find it difficult to grasp. After all, to assassinate is to kill – not something that ever crossed my mind when I was shooting.

“The modern camera is trying to be a ray gun.” (Susan Sontag,  1977)Image Source

Of course, it’s terms such as “I’m shooting today” that make that comparison a little easier to grasp. We load the film, aim the camera, and then shoot. If you don’t load film, you load the memory card instead.

Like guns, cameras don’t kill – it’s us who pull the trigger/ press the shutter. In both situations we wait until we “go in for the kill”, or simply shoot away hoping to get something good out of it.

Sontag goes on to say that there is something predatory about the act of taking a photograph. “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” Since the camera is a more subtle version of the gun, photographing someone is a more subtle version of murder, according to Sontag.

Further she gives an example for a situation where people have already swapped guns for cameras: The photographic safari which has replaced the gun safari in Africa.

By photographing people, we get to see a part of them that they will likely never see as we do. When we look through the viewfinder, moving the lens to get in closer or moving the whole camera to get a different composition, we decide which part of this person we want to keep. I would go as far as saying that we trap a part of their personality on the negative/the memory card, and later on paper, too.

So if we already imprison a part of our subjects, is assassination that far fetched?

Just remember: “Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is sublimated murder […]”.



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