Sontag, “In Plato’s Cave”

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York, Rosetta Books, 1973, pp. 1-19.


Sontag critiques the presence of photography/the photograph through a comparison to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” She highlights power dynamics, the difference [and distance] between experience and its capture, and the complications of understanding as flattening the camera’s capability to capture Reality and Truth and, in effect, distorting both. For Sontag, photos inform, anesthetize, and capture surfaces. Their production is tied to desire [for nostalgia], they serve as evidence, and overexposure to them can potentially deaden the kind of emotional response that they are often circulated to elicit.

Keywords: photography, camera, truth, time, reality, power


  • photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing. Finally, the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads—as an anthology of images (1).

  • Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood (2).
  • To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power (2).
  • the camera record justifies. A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture. Whatever the limitations (through amateurism) or pretensions (through artistry) of the individual photographer, a photograph—any photograph—seems to have a more innocent, and therefore more accurate, relation to visible reality than do other mimetic objects (3).

  • There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera (4).

  • photography is not practiced by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power (5).

  • Those ghostly traces, photographs, supply the token presence of the dispersed relatives (6).

  • As photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure (6).

  • The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel (7).

  • Photography has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation … Taking photographs has set up a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events (8).

  • Our very sense of situation is now articulated by the camera’s interventions (8).

  • To take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged (at least for as long as it takes to get a “good” picture), to be in complicity with whatever makes a subject interesting, worth photographing—including, when that is the interest, another person’s pain or misfortune (9).

  • The camera doesn’t rape, or even possess, though it may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and, at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate—all activities that, unlike the sexual push and shove, can be conducted from a distance, and with some detachment (9).

  • 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 (11).

  • Guns have metamorphosed into cameras in this earnest comedy, the ecology safari, because nature has ceased to be what it always had been—what people needed protection from. Now nature—tamed, endangered, mortal—needs to be protected from people. When we are afraid, we shoot. But when we are nostalgic, we take pictures (11).

  • All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt (11).

  • A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence (12).

  • talismanic uses of photographs express a feeling both sentimental and implicitly magical: they are attempts to contact or lay claim to another reality (12).

  • Photographs can abet desire in the most direct, utilitarian way—as when someone collects photographs of anonymous examples of the desirable as an aid to masturbation … Desire has no history—at least, it is experienced in each instance as all foreground, immediacy (12).

  • Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one—and can help build a nascent one (13).

  • Photographs may be more memorable than moving images, because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow. Television is a stream of underselected images, each of which cancels its predecessor. Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again (13).

  • Though an event has come to mean, precisely, something worth photographing, it is still ideology (in the broadest sense) that determines what constitutes an event. There can be no evidence, photographic or otherwise, of an event until the event itself has been named and characterized. And it is never photographic evidence which can construct—more properly, identify—events; the contribution of photography always follows the naming of the event. What determines the possibility of being affected morally by photographs is the existence of a relevant political consciousness (14).

  • The quality of feeling, including moral outrage, that people can muster in response to photographs of the oppressed, the exploited, the starving, and the massacred also depends on the degree of their familiarity with these images (14).

  • Photographs shock insofar as they show something novel. Unfortunately, the ante keeps getting raised—partly through the very proliferation of such images of horror (14).

  • To suffer is one thing; another thing is living with the photographed images of suffering, which does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them … Images transfix. Images anesthetize (15).

  • The particular qualities and intentions of photographs tend to be swallowed up in the generalized pathos of time past. Aesthetic distance seems built into the very experience of looking at photographs, if not right away, then certainly with the passage of time. Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art (16).

  • 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 a mystery (17).

  • The ultimate wisdom of the photographic image is to say: “There is the surface. Now think—or rather feel, intuit—what is beyond it, what the reality must be like if it looks this way.” Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy (17).

  • In contrast to the amorous relation, which is based on how something looks, understanding is based on how it functions. And functioning takes place in time, and must be explained in time. Only that which narrates can make us understand (18).

  • By furnishing this already crowded world with a duplicate one of images, photography makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is (18).

  • Today everything exists to end in a photograph (19).

Citation – not available


  • Interest is piqued by the idea of photography as violation or possession (reminded of Groys’s and Kracauer’s “demonic, sensual desire” and of cultures viewing photography as capturing souls, etc). Is this somehow rooted in an aversion to un-Truth? Want to think about this more.
  • Also intrigued by photograph as present-absence.
  • Thinking about photography as more memorable than streamed images … and how that connects to the way the human brain remembers in slices of moments. Is this the ‘why’? Because we remember in snapshots?
  • I am not sure about her bit about events and naming and photography as a contribution to event … What of discoveries made in a photograph? And in the case of crime, etc., when photographs exist prior to knowledge/naming of event? So much to think through …
  • Is Barthes’s punctum, then, located in the affect of distorted Reality and Truth?

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