How photography can fail – On Sontag's On Photography

My first thoughts on Susan Sontag's collection of essays On Photography.

Sontag uses photography to critique the ill effects on our society of substance materialism and naive realism, though she does not explicitly name these philosophical traditions or their relation to photography.

Substance Materialism, or On Being

Sontag's main complaint is that "through photographs, the world becomes a series of unrelated, freestanding particles; history, past and present, a set of anecdotes and faits divers. The camera makes reality atomic, manageable, and opaque. It is a view of the world which denies interconnectedness, continuity, but which confers on each moment the character of mystery" (Sontag p. 22).

Further, "photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy" (Sontag p. 22).

Here Sontag is channeling Marx's critique of Capitalism and the atomistic strain of substance materialism that began in ancient Greece and extends through parts of the physical and social sciences today. This philosophical tradition sees the world as composed of individual physical units or substances (atoms or subatomic particles) that each posses a kind of wholeness, unity, indivisibility. This is the world of cause and effect, in which we believe that we can break things into their parts and thereby understand the thing itself, and if we can manipulate the parts we can control and predict the thing itself. When applied to humans, especially in today's social sciences, this view can underemphasize our social connections and interdependence on each other and can overemphasize individual autonomy (persons as a discrete units) and fail to see history as our history.

On the other hand, Marx emphasizes networks and relations over discrete individuals.

"The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organization of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature" (Marx p. 7) [emphasis mine].

"Thus it is quite obvious from the start that there exists a materialistic connection between men with one another, which is determined by their needs and their mode of production, and which is as old as men themselves." (Marx p. 18).

"This sum of productive forces, forms of capital and social forms of intercourse, which every individual and generation finds in existence as something given, is the real basis of what the philosophers have conceived as 'substance' and 'essence of man'" (Marx p. 29).

In other words, although Marx is in the materialist tradition, he recognizes that the present and past of our social relations are what constitute our essence, who we are, not just the physical matter from which we are made. Sontag's critique is that photographs cannot capture the fullness of the present and past of our social being. Individual moments sedimented and crystallized into a snapshot cannot reveal the depth and breadth of the human condition. The danger of the photograph is that it can hide relations and networks. This is one way photography can fail.

This is again conveyed by Marx in his critique of Feuerbach when Marx writes, "The essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each separate individual. In its reality it is the ensemble (aggregate) of social relations" (p. 198)

Naive Realism, or On Knowing

In addition to criticizing how photographs confuse what we are, Sontag also criticizes how photographs confuse what we know.

"Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks" (pp. 22-23).

"The limit of photographic knowledge of the world is that, while it can goad conscience, it can, finally, never be ethical or political knowledge" (p. 23).

I agree with Sontag that photographs cannot be ethical or political knowledge. However, if we follow Marx again, we see that photographs are indeed ethical and political objects, in that they are inescapably ideological objects. Any representation, e.g., a photograph, that claims to neutrally or objectively represent reality is a representation in service of an ideology, one leaning on naive realism, which claims that the world is as it appears to us and that we have the tools to access that reality free from our own ideologies. So, while the photograph cannot convey true ethical or political understanding, the photograph is inescapably a political tool.

Naive realism takes man and the world to be as they simply appear to be. Sontag objects, and so does Marx: "Even the objects of the simplest 'sensuous certainty' are only given him through social development, industry and commercial intercourse" (Marx p. 35).

What appears as given, simple, and common sense, are actually the product of a history of social relations between people, and this history and these social relations are what a photograph cannot convey, according to Sontag. People are activities, events, processes, not discrete objects (Marx p.37). When we think we truly understand a situation because we have seen it photographed, at best our understanding is shallow and at worst our understanding lacks any meaning. This is another way photography can fail.

Substance materialism and naive realism have ancient philosophical roots that extend into parts of today's physical and social sciences. Photography in so far as it promotes objectivity, discrete individualism, and naive realism is a participant in these philosophical traditions.

Photography is not their progenitor, a fact that I wish Sontag would have spent more time illuminating. Unfortunately, she may give some readers the impression that photography alone bares the burden of these objectifying and individualizing philosophical traditions.



Sontag, Susan. 1977. On Photography.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 2011. The German Ideology Parts I & III. Edited by R. Pascal.