Retraining the Eye

by Sarah Reinsel 

Twentieth century writer and critic Susan Sontag addresses the omnipresence of visual material and photography in “In Plato’s Cave”, sharply warning against the knowledge gained through photographs. She says,

The knowledge gained through still photographs will always be some kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist. It will be a knowledge at bargain prices—a semblance of knowledge, a semblance of wisdom . . . The omnipresence of photographs has an incalculable effect on our ethical sensibility. 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.

For Sontag, photographs make the world deceptively accessible, inflating our sense of knowledge, and with it, our sense of empathy. Can an image of, say, an emaciated child in a third world country, or of a wounded soldier in a desert in Iraq, really communicate to us their pain, or their story? Or does it just make us feel a little sentimental pity for them? On a far less dark note, think of the typical National Geographic adventure-travel photo of a lonely tent on a mountain or a stunning action shot of a bird in flight—what do these sorts of photos inspire in us? A sentimental feeling of wanderlust or real wonder at the world?

Though it may not sound like it, Sontag wrote this essay in 1973, and you need only glance at the phone you hold in your hand as your read this essay to know that the photographic omnipresence has only increased since then. This presence of photography and the availability of cameras for any consumer has created a grave need to retrain the eye in order to wade through the crowd of imitations and images. Sontag calls this a problem of “aesthetic consumerism”, condemning the consumer, the tourist, the shutterbug.

What I want to offer, then, is a strong tonic to Sontag’s formidable critique of photography, a way in which we can better perceive the pictures we see day to day without, of course, becoming aesthetes, another of Sontag’s fears; she references nineteenth-century French aesthete Stéphane Mallarmé, who said that “everything in the world exists to end in a book.” She continues, “Today everything exists to end in a photograph.” I claim that this is not inevitable—retraining our eyes may make possible a deeper aesthetic and artistic appreciation of photographs.

How to frame and how to see

Since the camera phone and point-and-shoot are probably not going to go out of style, perhaps the most direct way to reestablish an ethics and aesthetics of viewing the photographs we see is to train the way in which we ourselves compose them.

Take the Grand Canyon, for example. As it turns out, it’s pretty big. Uncapturably, inconceivably, crazily, grandly big. When I visited this past summer, no photo I took even came close to portraying its size, depth, and width. After taking a few moments to be frustrated with the width of my poor little kit lens, and realizing that nature had thoroughly defeated my attempts to frame its grandeur, I started seeing smaller details that were more manageable for an aging Nikon.

Rather than photograph the Grand Canyon for something to remember it by, take a hard look at the way the light colors the rocks, scope out a place where the shape of one craggy ridge is interestingly distinct from the others, and frame something beautiful. After all, the Rule of Thirds is not a hard concept. Pictures shouldn’t be snapped for the sake of legitimizing an experience on an Instagram feed or Facebook album, nor should the sights of a vacation be seen through a camera’s viewfinder. Rather, pictures should be composed with care, with the intent of creating a beautiful frame that does not pretend to accurately portray the size of the canyon or advertise the experience of hiking it. Make something beautiful about the experience with a camera, but don’t experience the hugeness of the Canyon, the many layers of expansiveness, and the strain of hiking up and down it, with the camera as a replacement for the eyes.

Potentials and Pitfalls

Looking at it this way, we can realize that the world is simply not available solely through photographs, as much as we want it to be. We can’t assume that we have a thorough understanding of the size of the Grand Canyon, of the danger a soldier braves, or of the exact motion of a bird in flight just because we know what it looks like—images are highly misleading in this regard. But by understanding our own position as photographers and wielders of phone cameras, we will also be reminded when seeing others’ photos that they were composed and captured by the skill of someone else’s eyes.

Sontag seems not to recognize photographs’ potential for empathy as much as their potential for deceit. In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, a collection of essays about war photography, Sontag provocatively warns, “To frame is to exclude.” While in many ways this is a fair criticism, all art must necessarily exclude in some way—we are limited by time and space and simply cannot see everything all at once. Nevertheless, the photographer needs an ethics of photographing as much as the viewer needs an ethics of seeing.

Another of Sontag’s driving concerns is that war photos, or really any photo of something that is totally other or wondrous, actually desensitize us to the reality of the photo’s subject—we simply don’t have the capacity to look at this inundation of pictures with the proper degree of compassion and understanding. I don’t think that this necessarily means that photos of painful subjects should not be taken and published, however. Photos valued for the information they present over the sensation they may create can be extremely beneficial for good journalism, or for an education in perspective. But in order for a photo to reach this requirement of presentation of information, the photographer must not frame for sensation, and the viewer must remember the Grand Canyon analogy described before—that this photo is the framed perspective of the photographer, it may very well not capture the whole situation, and the viewer must not assume that a step through this carefully cropped rectangle is a direct portal to reality.

Sontag’s title “In Plato’s Cave” is especially apt—no one knows the allure and power of images better than Socrates, and Sontag recognizes this. She says,

Poignant longings for beauty, for an end to probing below the surface, for a redemption and celebration of the body of the world—all these elements of erotic feeling are affirmed in the pleasure we take in photographs. But other, less liberating feelings are expressed as well. It would not be wrong to speak of people having a compulsion to photograph: to turn experience itself into a way of seeing. Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it, and participating in a public event comes more and more to be equivalent to looking at it in photographed form.

Sontag seems to have too little hope for a turn in our perspective. If, when looking at a photo, we begin to recognize it for what it is, an imitation of reality, there is still much perspective to glean from that photo, especially when we approach it with empathy for both the photographer’s eyes and the subject’s situation. To go a step further, the accessibility and ubiquitous ownership of cameras may in the end not be something to condemn any more than the omnipresence of ballpoint pens, because both pens and cameras are tools for recording and interpreting the world. For when we view a photo of the Grand Canyon, and then go visit it, turning ourselves to see the real thing, we can then take out our cameras and compose with care a picture, an image—framed with the care and intent of creating a beautiful frame that will communicate a perspective to others.

Sarah Reinsel is a junior studying English.


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