Sontag’s argument: photographic interventions, etc

I just spent the last week (along with my wife, who is also a grad student in anthropology) driving across the country—it was a bit more eventful than either of us had expected (thunderstorms in Kansas and Missouri, brake problems at 11,00 feet in Colorado, sand storms in northeast Arizona, and ridiculously dense 3 a.m. fog at the Cajon pass in Los Angeles). The trip reminded me, once again, that geography does matter—despite the arguments of technophiles who seem to think that the magic of the internet and other globalizing technologies have rendered silly impediments like massive mountain ranges irrelevant. Ya, that’s not the case. Mountains matter, and the battle between inclement weather and a 2000 GMC Jimmy is no contest, period.

Of course, we did have the chance to be tourists on this cross-country trek, and both of us had our camera equipment stuffed into the truck with the rest of our necessary graduate student detritus. Sure, we’re social science grad students—but make no mistake: we’re tourists just like anyone else out there who wields maps, guidebooks, and the desire to “see some cool stuff along the way.” So I feel like I have the appropriate experience (personal and observational) to make a few comments about the co-evolved relationship that exists between tourist behavior and photography. And yes, this does have something to do with anthropology.

Thanks to the comments to my first post here*, I had Susan Sontag’s argument that photography is “essentially an act of non-intervention” somewhat stuck in my head throughout the entire road trip. I read her book On Photography years ago before I switched to studying anthropology, and I think I ingested a certain amount of her argument about the passivity and alienation that making photographs can engender. Maybe a little too much. I have always had a strange relationship with photography: there were times when I found myself taking trips (to places like Death Valley or some other suitably photographic location) solely for the purpose of making photographs. It’s a little disconcerting when you realize that your behaviors are geared toward spending an exorbitant amount of time and effort in order to make two-dimensional recreations of places on colorless little pieces of paper.

Photography can become a very abstract, distanced way of interacting with the world around you, that’s for sure. And that’s also the reason why I had to step back and reassess what I was doing with photography after about eight solid years of being completely immersed in the photographic process. I used to carry my Leica M6 almost everywhere I went, and I was constantly looking—everywhere—for “good” images. Suddenly I started asking myself why I was spending so much time making little flat representations of anything and everything around me. What, I started wondering, was I really doing with photography—what was the point of it all? Considering the sheer volume of imagery that pervades our daily lives, not bad set of questions to ask.

Sontag makes two key arguments about photography that I want to briefly explore. First of all, she says that photographing is “essentially an act of non-intervention” that engenders a kind of detached, abstract, distanced relationship with the world (Sontag 1977:11). Sontag explicitly separates photography and action/intervention in her discussion: “The person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene” (1977:12). Cameras, for Sontag, are like social and political shields that detach photographers from experiences, whether good or bad. They force people to interact with the world around them through indirect means (taking photographs), rather than through more direct processes. She expands her argument so far as to say that the act of photographing actually serves to impede social change: “To take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged…to be in complicity with whatever makes a subject interesting, worth photographing—including, when that is the interest, another person’s pain or misfortune” (1977:12). This is, admittedly, a pretty cynical view of photography. While I do think that Sontag is right in many ways, I also think that her book is less about writing a unified theory of photography than it is about presenting certain meditations and thoughts about the impacts of photography on contemporary social and political culture.

When it comes to tourists, Sontag compares calls them predators: “The predatory side of photography is at the heart of the alliance, evident earlier in the United States than anywhere else, between photography and tourism” (1977:64). Again, I think she is on the mark about tourists in some ways—throngs of people armed with cameras can be invasive, overwhelming, and obsessively predatory in their search for “authentic” images, places, and experiences. But I think her argument about photography—and tourism—gets a little over-generalized at times. Sure, the act of photographing can be a detached, abstracting process, and tourists can be predators that only seek to “turn the past into a consumable object” (Sontag 1977:68), but that’s by no means the limit of what tourism—or photography—can be.

It’s easy to start thinking about tourists as a large, like-minded mass of image producers and consumers who blaze their way through destination after destination. But, following the work of anthropologists such as Edward Bruner, I think it makes sense to look closely at what tourists actually do, how they behave, and how they use their cameras when they’re out traveling the world. It’s interesting how we are, at times, more comfortable allowing stereotypes about some groups to stand, for some reason or another. Tourists are often a favorite target for condescension and over-generalizations.  I wonder why.

So all of this was on my mind when we passed through southwest Colorado and finally got the chance to visit Mesa Verde National Park. We went on one of the guided tours to the Cliff Palace site. Yes, plenty of people had their cameras with them, and there were lots and they were certainly taking plenty of pictures. But they were hardly glued behind their cameras the entire time, as Sontag’s argument would suggest. Photography is not simply a way of detaching oneself from experiences and events—it can in fact be one part of a wider set of behaviors and interactions that take place. If you take Sontag’s argument to heart, it might be reasonable to assume that tourists simply flock to sites like Mesa Verde, hidden behind their zoom lenses, with the sole purpose of producing a mass of images rather than actually seeing or experiencing the site itself. But people often use cameras intermittently, and they produce images with thoughts of future social uses in mind (posting on Facebook, Flickr, etc).

One of the most interesting aspects of this tour was the evidence of the physical presence of the tourists themselves. Thousands of tourists pass through these kinds of archaeological tourist sites each year, and they certainly leave their marks. One of the most difficult parts of managing tourism in these places is the mitigation of the impacts on archaeological structures/sites (this is the case in Chichen Itza just as much as Mesa Verde). There is one part of the tour where the guide allows tourists to peek inside one of the structures through small window in order to look at some of the plaster that has managed to survive all of these centuries. Thousands of people have placed their hands on the edges of this window, and their hands have left undeniable marks (look at the edges of the window):


Now, I know that preservation is critical, and that people aren’t supposed to touch anything at these sites. But I also think—from an anthropological perspective—that the evidence of all of these people passing through sites like this is fascinating. Places like Mesa Verde served certain social, political, ritual, and domestic purposes hundreds of years ago, and today they serve some very different purposes. The marks of these tourists, while problematic for park officials and others who are in charge of preservation, also illustrate the fact that tourists are not simply hiding behind cameras—the tours to these places are quite tactile and social, and photography is just one part of a suite of behaviors that take place at these destinations. I don’t really think it would be fair—let alone accurate—to simply characterize all tourists as detached predators who only want to fire away thousands of images and move on to the next commodified location. People asked questions, wandered through the site, and talked a lot among themselves throughout the tour.

I do think that the act of photographing can foster a certain detachment, and that people sometimes end up treating cameras as predatory devices that can grab an unlimited number of representational slices of the world. But this isn’t always the case—whether we are talking about tourism photography or ethnographic photography. Yes, there are certain limitations with photography, and there are certain effects of putting an electronic device in front of your face in order to make reproductions of the world. But cameras and images do not completely determine behaviors or possibilities. While Sontag argues that photography is a detached way of avoiding intervention in the world, I disagree. It can be, of course, but it all depends on how people put cameras (and the resulting images) to use.

This is a relatively minor example, but I think it gets the point across.  The tourists at Mesa Verde certainly took their share of pictures, but they were not simply hidden behind their cameras the entire time—to assume so is a serious mischaracterization. Ultimately, Sontag makes the mistake of separating the act of making photographs from the rest of the social behaviors that surround human experience. When people take pictures—whether they are tourists, photojournalists, or ethnographers, they do so in the context of a range of other behaviors. It makes sense, then, to avoid making too many assumptions about the limitations of photography, and instead pay attention to how people make images and then actually use them in their daily lives—whether they post them on Facebook or publish them in formal ethnographies. Photographing can be an alienating process that perpetuates consumerist, abstract interactions with the world. But that’s not all it can be about. The production of images (i.e. photography) exists within wider networks of social behavior, that’s for sure. Therefore, the exploration of the actual uses and meanings of photography continues to be some pretty fertile ground for anthropologists and ethnographers. After all, moving past assumptions about human behavior is what anthropology is all about, right?

*That’s you John M. and MT Bradley.  Thanks for the discussion.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

7 thoughts on “Sontag’s argument: photographic interventions, etc

  1. I know when I hold a camera to my eye, whether video or photography, it changes my mode of thinking. I start to think about audience as much as much as I think about what is standing before me. This “detached, abstract, distanced relationship with the world” as Sontag calls it, often means the photographer focuses on audience over the subject- even if that audience is just yourself sometime in the future. It creates a focus on how to create a representation that documents both what exists within the frame of a photograph and idea of what that moment feels like. For me that’s what it means to actively look for “good photographs” as you put it.

    In that very act of detachment however, we are also connecting the audience and ourselves to that subject. We create a representation of things that are there and something of what it felt like being there. In that sense, photography is also always an act of attaching. “Good photographs” are those that produce some sort of strong attachment.

    A quote from Sarah Elder’s (1995) article “Collaborative Filmmaking” has always resonated with me. She writes, “All documentary exists as a record of the relationship between filmmaker and subject.” David MacDougall’s article “Who’s Story Is It?” also questions ownership of representation and detachment, Relationships between people, events, and things always exist in a created representation in some form- even if we try and detach.

    Photography is so seductive because it’s an easy way to create a trace of an encounter or attachment that can travel easily. A photograph is a short cut for accessing our memory of what we thought and felt while being there- even if we just went there to take a photograph. A tourist may not remember the moment they leaned in the window, but their photograph may access their split second sense awe of encountering plaster centuries older than themselves. For those like me who have never been there, your image and commentary asks what those stones might feel like or what it’s like to physically encounter that place. Laura Marks writes of this haptic nature of image and representation. Photographs circulated through people are a short cut that lets us share the memories of an experience with others, even if it is always in a limited way heavily influenced by the role of the audience.

    You end by mentioning how we use photographs in our daily lives and how the production of images exists within social networks. This is an incredibly important point. I am currently in the midst of ethnographic fieldwork that centers on the production of visual representations. I came prioritizing an audience that exists outside the community and thinking of the people I photograph as collaborative subjects in that purpose. Right now, I am thinking of changing my perspective and thinking about how my collaborative subjects are also my audience and how the images exist within their social network first and foremost. The images I help produce seem to help support their attachments between themselves and with me. They express an appreciation for those images that create short cuts for their memories of people, places, and events. The memories and feelings accessed by the images inspire people to constantly request their images circulate on Facebook now, as much as they might express interest in how they might be featured in my dissertation or published in the future.

  2. Ryan, Jennifer, two thought-provoking meditations: they awaken the following thoughts in this reader’s mind.

    First, re Sontag. It is, I believe, important to recall the historical context in which Sontag was writing, just after the end of the Vietnam War, during which such iconic images as a naked little girl fleeing a napalm bombing and a South Vietnamese officer executing a Viet Cong prisoner by shooting him in the head had made the ethics of photojournalism a very hot issue, indeed.

    Second, I’ve mentioned this before in response to Ryan’s previous post, but it is crucial, I believe, to distinguish the world’s of film photography, in which the economics of time, film, developing and printing made the choice of what to shoot far more deliberate than it now is, thanks to digital cameras, many built into smart phones, that allow far greater spontaneity.

    Third, this very spontaneity can, in an experience shared by my wife and myself, encourage a heightened, almost Zen, mindfulness. Our cameras are more likely to record insects, flowers, construction machinery in light from a setting sun, aesthetically interesting bits of industrial debris….whatever catches our eye as we walk from home to office or set out on impromptu hikes around the city in which we live than conventional tourist destination scenes or newsworthy events. Now even when our cameras are at home and our smart phones are in our pockets, we find ourselves pointing and saying “Do you see…”

    This is, of course, a style of photography very different from that of a professional shooting an artfully composed and lighted scene, a work of art or an advertising image, or that of a photojournalist looking for shots that will make news. Its Zen-like quality lies in the combination of mindfulness and spontaneity, very different from the attitude that Jennifer describes when she writes, “I know when I hold a camera to my eye, whether video or photography, it changes my mode of thinking. I start to think about audience as much as much as I think about what is standing before me. “

  3. @Jennifer:

    “A tourist may not remember the moment they leaned in the window, but their photograph may access their split second sense awe of encountering plaster centuries older than themselves.”

    Ya–I can identify with this, absolutely. For me, photography has been very much about creating little memory devices. I often think of photographing as a form of note-taking, and making “good images” is akin to taking good notes in some ways. It’s also, of course, about shaping memories by making certain editorial and technical decisions (framing, focal length, etc).

    “The images I help produce seem to help support their attachments between themselves and with me.”

    Ya, I like this way of thinking about photography. Rather than seeing the photographer as some outsider who happens to shoot images of “subjects,” it’s a lot more interesting–to me–to think about the social relations and contexts that result in the production of images. Unless we’re shooting pics of people from far away with 800mm lenses (which isn’t my style at all), photography is very much about collaboration, agreements, and relationships (or attachments as you say).


    First of all, I agree with you that it’s important to pay attention to the contexts in which Sontag was writing. The other issue that I have noticed is that her arguments shift around in the book when it comes to the effects and ethics of photography. Definitely more of a collection of essays than a linear theory of photography, that’s for sure.

    Also, I like your point about the spontaneity that digital photography can bring about. I spent years shooting film, and I do go about things a lot differently now that I use all digital. I agree that a whole different type of images can be created when you’re not worried about “wasting” film. I notice that I will take pictures of things just to do it, or to take note of something, just as much as I try to make “good” images. Back in the days of film I did shoot a ton, but I was always conscious of the limited number of frames per roll (not to mention some of the technical limitations of the particular roll that happened to be in the camera–digital has definitely changed that part of the whole process now what we can adjust ISO shot for shot if we want).


    Mesa Verde was really, really cool. I have always wanted to go, and it was worth it. In fact, I want to go back asap and spend some more time when I am not trying to move a bunch of stuff across the country. The whole setup of the sites there is amazing. There is one part of the park where they have examples of the different structures/sites chronologically arranged (called the Mesa Top Loop I think), which was a great way of showing the archaeological trajectory of the region. My favorite part was checking out Cliff House palace, especially when the official tour was over and we got the chance to talk to the docent/guide and just hang out around the site for a bit. I always want to just wander around those kinds of sites and soak in the place–I can’t stand being rushed through them.

    PS: thanks for the link too!

    Also: thanks for the link!

  4. Thanks for these posts, made me reach for my copy of On Photography. Sure, photography can be an act of non-intervention, or worse, an act of exploitation. I’m a sociologist living in PNG, and the photographers who run through tend to mythologize the people or photograph wildlife and nature characterizing the country as a pristine, undisturbed, paradise. These characterizations are interesting, perhaps because they betray the hegemonic western ideology (or imperial ways of knowing the other to use James Ferguson’s phrase) underpinning say ecotourism, environmental conservation, or development.

    I recall the photographer Brent Stirton’s work in PNG caused some controversy (at least here) when a Scottish newspaper published his photograph of a naked PNG woman, presumably a prostitute. Certainly an act of non-intervention, and certainly exploitative.

    When I get fed up with photography, I try and recall the wonderful book by Herb Goro, The Block. A teacher and social worker, Goro spent a year living in a decaying slum in East Bronx in the late 60s. His photographs and text from taped interviews are shocking, confrontational, but always communicate a sense of respect and dignity – no small feat when it comes to photography.

  5. Echoing ryan a on the shifts Sontag makes in the essays that make up On Photography, I think it’s also important to remember that she revis(it)ed many of these statements shortly before her death in Regarding the Pain of Others.

  6. @ dafzal:

    “I’m a sociologist living in PNG, and the photographers who run through tend to mythologize the people or photograph wildlife and nature characterizing the country as a pristine, undisturbed, paradise.”

    Ya, there is definitely no shortage of this kind of photography–it’s all over the place. But then, the same can be said of plenty of writers, whether academic or journalists. One goal, then, is to use photography (and writing) to keep challenging these sorts of idealized characterizations of people and places. It’s funny how selective photography can be: by just eliminating certain objects (power lines, cars, trash, etc) they can serve to uphold false conceptions of places. But there are lots of ways to photograph something.

    Also: thanks for the tip about Goro’s work. I’ll check it out.

    @ A. Non

    I read through the first chapter, and she seems to be making definitive statements. But then when I kept on reading, I realized that she kind of wanders around a bit, and is by no means making strict declarations. On Photography is more of a meditation than anything, not really a strict theory of photography. And I really like her style of writing, even if I disagree with certain points/ideas here and there.

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