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Susan Sontag on Selfies, Selfhood, and How the Camera Helps Us Navigate Complexity

“There is a dialectical exchange between simplicity and complexity, like the one between self-revelation and self-concealment.”

Susan Sontag on Selfies, Selfhood, and How the Camera Helps Us Navigate Complexity

“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted,” Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) wrote in her timeless 1977 treatise on photography, an inquiry of uncanny and swelling timeliness today. She had been tussling with and incubating these ideas — this growing concern with how the commodification of images is changing our relationship to ourselves and the world — for some years.

In one particularly poignant 1975 Boston Review interview, later included in the magnificent compendium Conversations with Susan Sontag (public library), she reflects on how the technology of photography has shaped one of the most abiding mysteries of the human experience — the puzzlement of what makes us and our childhood selves “the same person” despite a lifetime of change.

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, 1975, from Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture

In a sobering reality check with history, Sontag observes:

The vast majority of people, those who could not afford to have a portrait painted, had no record of what they looked like as children. Today, we all have photographs in which we can see ourselves at age six, our faces already intimating what they were to become. We have similar information about our parents and grandparents. And there’s a great poignancy in these photographs; they make you realize that these people really were children once. To be able to see oneself and one’s parents as children is an experience unique to our time. The camera has brought people a new, and essentially pathetic, relation to themselves, to their physical appearance, to aging, to their own mortality. It is a kind of pathos which never existed before.

It’s a jarring notion to contemplate amid our present culture, where this pathos has reached a shrill crescendo in the selfie pandemic. Here we are, facing the camera in order to face ourselves, both instantaneously and perpetually, as we look to the world to affirm the reality of our very existence by validating these snapshots of selfhood. I’m reminded of Italo Calvino who, in contemplating photography and the art of presence also in the 1970s, observed: “The life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself.”

And yet Sontag, a staunch opponent of artificial polarities, cautions against reducing photography to simplistic binaries. Instead, she points to it as our coping mechanism, however imperfect, for dealing with the complexity of the outside world and of our interior lives. Echoing Hannah Arendt on being vs. appearing and our impulse for self-revelation, Sontag notes:

The problem with photography is that … it’s too imperious a way of seeing. Its balance between being “present” and being “absent” is facile, when generalized as an attitude — which it is now in our culture. But I’m not against simplicity, as such. There is a dialectical exchange between simplicity and complexity, like the one between self-revelation and self-concealment. The first truth is that every situation is extremely complicated and that anything one thinks about thereby becomes more complicated. The main mistake people make when thinking about something, whether an historical event or one in their private lives, is that they don’t see just how complicated it is. The second truth is that one cannot live out all the complexities one perceives, and that to be able to act intelligently, decently, efficiently, and compassionately demands a great deal of simplification. So there are times when one has to forget — repress, transcend — a complex perception that one has.

For a deeper dive into these complexities, revisit Sontag’s extended meditation on visual culture, then complement the magnificently insightful Conversations with Susan Sontag with her enduring wisdom on love, art, silence, personal growth, beauty vs. interestingness, and what it means to be a decent human being.

Published March 30, 2016




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