In The Heroism of Vision, Susan Sontag outlines some of the problematic tensions that have historically existed in the photographer’s aim to capture the world on a series of “cultural and class and scientific safaris” (89). The hero (or photographer)’s quest on these safaris is unattainable and leads to a number of ethical issues.
The initial goal of photographers, Sontag argues, was to capture both beauty and truth. The affordances of photographic technology led people to view the camera as “a copying machine” (87) that honestly portrays reality. Photographs then became the standard for what was beautiful in the world. The success of this is illustrated by the banality of things like sunsets because of their familiarity or ‘looking like a photograph.’ They are picturesque.
However beautiful, photographs are not truth-tellers. As Sontag argues, photographic ways of seeing are subjective. Sontag asserts, “…nobody takes the same picture of the same thing” (88). Photographs have a denotative and a connotative meaning and are embedded in cultural understanding.
Sontag then describes the 1920s and 30s photographers’ fascination with close-ups. She argues a photo may be beautiful, but that it is not necessarily conveying any truth about what the subject is really like. This practice of looking is objectifying and dissociative.
This 1920s style became clichéd. Techniques and subjects need to be renewed for photographs to have a continued impact on viewers. A humanist approach that involved more imperfect techniques came into common practice.
Sontag reveals how newer approaches to photography have a number of ethical issues. Contemporary photographic is also highly objectifying. It forces aesthetics on documentation of emotions (like agony), which creates a distance between the viewer and the subject. Sontag refers to this as a “museum-without-walls” – meaning that the subjects therein are merely regarded as “items for aesthetic appreciation” (110). Within this practice, taking a photograph of something turns it into an object rather than giving it unique value. Lastly, Sontag argues that the context and paratext of a photo (where it is placed, the wording of the caption beneath it) destroys any aims for the photograph to convey a stable social meaning.
Overall, Sontag identifies the central issue to be that “Seeing through photographs really invites an acquisitive relation to the world that nourishes aesthetic awareness and promotes emotional detachment” (111). The heroism of vision is thus the camera’s ability to turn reality into something beautiful as a result of its fallible nature as a truth-teller.
Sontag, Susan. “Heroism of Vision.” On Photography. New York: Farra, Straus, Giroux, 1977. Print.