Susan Sontag – On Photography

Susan Sontag ‘On Photography’ – Analysis regarding the development of photography and war photography

This book has the most insightful interpretations on photography. It was really thought provoking, and incredibly useful for my study. Because the book was published in 1971, it does limit the focus on film, but even still, the interpretation on the film era are very useful.

Sontag sees the development of photography as a success, seeing that the medium is more accessible compared to the times when cameras were expressive contraptions[1]. The development of the camera technology gave the customers more confidence with a machine that is ‘all-knowing’[2], providing more interest in the medium for tourists and families. However, she also explains the negatives of photography with the effect photographs have on the people in them, calling it a violation[3] that lasts longer than life itself. Furthermore, she champions the effect that controversial photography has, especially war photography. However, she explains that ‘the world has given everyone a certain familiarity with atrocity, making the horrible seem more ordinary’[4], suggesting that by introducing horrible images into people’s lives more frequently introduces more people to the horrors of war, making it seem ‘ordinary’.

I agree that the developments of photography open up more possibilities for amateur photographers, making them invest more into their own personal machines and equipment. However, she doesn’t touch on the effect the development has on practitioners; perhaps because of the time it was written, or perhaps she sees the future to not need professionals because of the increase in quality. This isn’t clear in the book, but it is clear to many that because the cameras are more automatic, there is less demand for photographers. However, I do agree the emphasis that she places on the medium, that photography has become part of everyday life with more families owning cameras to remember significant moments. Moreover, I agree that the age of a photograph is incredibly important for remembrance of people who aren’t around anymore. The photographs are incredibly important for those who have lost loved ones, and photography is essential for remembering those people.

Sontag’s mention that controversial photography makes the horrible more ‘ordinary’ was thought provoking. But without photography from wars, peoples perceptions would only be straightforward and linked to their country. The photography in the Vietnamese war made many Americans realise the reality of the war, making people question the war. Without photo-journalism, there will never be two sides to an argument, and people would never realise the reality of war. These photographs will make horror seem more ‘ordinary’, but it ensures that people see the horror and accept the difference between right and wrong.


[1] That age when taking photographs required a cumbersome and expensive contraption-the toy of the clever, the wealthy, and the obsessed’ – Susan Sontag ‘On Photography’ – 7

[2] ‘Manufacturers reassure their customers that taking pictures demands no skill or expert knowledge, that the machine is all-knowing’ – Susan Sontag ‘On Photography’ – 14

[3] ‘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’ – Susan Sontag ‘On Photography’ – 14

[4]  Susan Sontag ‘On Photography’ – 21

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