A photograph is a reflection of our attitude towards life. By looking at a photograph the viewer gains a second-hand experience of a recorded moment. This moment provides us with insight into a captured memory which allows us to get to know the world better, and thus, get to know ourselves better. In Susan Sontag’s essay Regarding the Pain of Others, she says the modern photography is driven by the reaction of audience, and the purpose of photography should be to reflect the truth and allow people to remember. Similarly to Sontag, I think photography serves the role of recording memories and helps people to move forward from the process of reflection. From my perspective, there are three layers of the function of photography that the audience can use to evaluate their taste in images and help society to move forward.
Some of the photography today turns us into spectators rather than making us think about the history behind the image. By being involved in the larger contexts of the photograph we gain a well- rounded perspective and thus a fuller story. The viewers become prisoners of the past. They are unable to move forward to create a better future. Pictures should move us to make some differences now and in the future. I believe one of the most important functions of photography is to inform the audience and let them think about the bigger picture; forcing the viewer to look beyond the image itself. The photographs shouldn’t be presented in a way to just aim at getting attention from the audience, because people will get tired of the image. As Sontag says “Shock can become familiar. Shock can wear off. Even if it doesn’t, one can not look” (260). I also agree with her point that photographs should serve as a purpose of allowing people to look inside of themselves with an inner dignity instead of making everyone be a tourist in other people’s reality.
From my perspective, there are three layers of values in photography. The basic level is to show what you have depicted. The picture itself lacks meaning to the audience. why? how so? It could mean something special to the photographer yet it is hard to resonate with the audience. The photographs in the initial layer are superficial or have no depth. The deeper value of the photograph conveys the emotions at the moment. It is the feeling of the photographer at a certain period, in a certain context. On one hand, the photographs of conveying emotion won’t always affect the audience when they see the picture. As they serve the product of feelings at the moment. On the other hand, the audience can get used to the image easily as the image is fragile when it comes to the experience of time; the image can fade because it is meaningless. In a nutshell, the photograph in the first level lacks interaction with the audience, it is just showing without making connection. The purpose is mainly driven by the reaction from the viewers, and is driven by getting the expectation from them thus sometimes even losing the original motivation of why the picture was taken. Sontag says, “As a consequence, morally alert photographers and ideologues of photography have become increasingly concerned with the issues of exploitation of sentiment (pity, compassion, indignation) in war photography and rote ways of provoking feeling” (259). Photographers should seek the truth rather than catering for the audience by adding emotional-provoking components.
The second layer of photography is a captured moment in a much bigger story limited by a narrow frame of lives that one’s impressed, appreciating the image and telling the stories through the pictures. The photographs in this level are more like visual arts, you convey what you believe and trying to tell the stories behind it. The difference between this level and the first is picturing image through a storytelling way rather than entertaining the audience. Photographers recorded the memories that not only mean something to them, but also allows the audience to connect to the photograph to themselves. It also connects to what they have gone through in the past and what future ahead. Sontag asserts, “the familiarity of certain photographs builds our sense of the present and immediate past” (261). Photography serves a purpose for people to be able to reflect on the past and is the source of remembering. Because it is the purpose of taking pictures: to preserve the memories.
However, since the photograph is a freezing moment, viewers could not be able to get the “big picture” beyond that. It is limited by time and space, so what the audience sees is not always the truth. Sontag discusses that “Photographs tend to transform, whatever their subject; and as an image something maybe beautiful-or terrifying, or unbearable-as it is not in real life” (258). Besides, she demonstrates that “The problem is not that people remember through photographs, but that they remember only the photographs. This remembering through photographs eclipses other forms of understanding, and remembering” (263). I do believe so, because photography needs to be supplemented by texts and narration; otherwise it is just a narrow frame into a moment in time. That means, using content analysis method to analyze the existing documents and media and then uncover what happened behind the image. Sontag demonstrates that photography is in a narrow frame and doesn’t show the whole story. She also criticized how photography is used as more of an art form than as a way to document the past by saying “The dual powers of photograph-to generate documents and to create works of visual art” (258). Thus, the narration will serve as a bridge between audience and image, the communication between the photographer and the audience begins from this stage.
The highest level of photography goes beyond aesthetics and beauty. It’s about sharing the ideas through the picture, that is-based on the process of thinking, reflecting and informing. So the image becomes a means to convey ideas. However, the relation between photography and the arts becomes vague. Sontag says that “As art has been redefined during a century of modernism as whatever is destined to enshrined in some kind of museum, so it is now the destiny of many photographic troves to be exhibited and preserved in museum-like institutions” (262). I also believe some of today’s photography is trying to transform into arts. The relationship between artsy photography and real life photography as a form of documentation of the truth is vague. For example, more and more people using Instagram or other social media tool to edit reality and subject their own feelings on the photos. It does not apply to the real world because the photography does not reflect the truth. It’s just a feeling of the photographer. The stories are set based on those emotional experience and the unreal techniques. I think the process of making a photograph towards an artwork is also a process of touching up a story. Photographers add their own “seasonings” and create more flavors to the story beyond the image. In addition, I believe photography should allow the viewers to look deeper inside of themselves and make them be more respectful and reflective to the truth, instead of limiting themselves to understand only the first layer.
An effective photograph influences the audience, and holds on to what you believe, yet not directly convey through the image, but leaves the spaces to the audience to let them think about it. Photography’s purpose for people is to be able to reflect on the past and step forward.
Sontag, Susan. “Regarding the Pain of Others.” Other Words: A Writer’s Reader.
Ed.David Fleming et al.Dubuque: Kendall Hunt, 2009. 257-265. Print.