What we Chose to See
“In Susan Sontag’s essay, “In Plato’s Cave,” she argues that humankind is still in “Plato’s Cave.” Sontag mentions that photography has created an ethics relationship on what we want and don’t want to see. For example, photography can only show us the surface of a photo, allowing the viewer to gather or feel what the reality was like. People have become afraid of knowing the truth. Additionally, photography can be interpreted in many different ways with the use of our experiences. Lastly, photography can give us the knowledge of what the world if we accept the world as the way we see it instead of how the photographer wants us to see it. Sontag’s essay gives us the idea that photography has been given too much power because of ethical relationships and the idea that photography alienated us from the truth.
In Susan Sontag’s essay, she mentions that photography has trapped us in a “cave” where we are used to believing that what we see is the reality, instead of facing the actual truth. Sontag’s use of Plato’s Cave as a metaphor implies that photography has become the way we view things in reality. Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” describes prisoners being chained up in a cave and unable to turn their heads around. These prisoners were only allowed to see the wall of the cave, where the fire behind them cast shadows onto the wall. As they observed the shadows, they started to believe that the things they saw on the wall were real because they knew nothing of what actually caused the shadows. Then, one prisoner is set free and was able to see how the shadows were actually made. When he was out in the real world, he came to the realization that shadows were only a certain part reality. He began to see real birds, trees, animals, people, and clouds. He realizes that he is facing reality and that the figures in the cave, were representations of actual things. When he went back to tell the other prisoners what he had seen, the prisoners did not believe him and were scared to go out and face reality, they preferred to be trapped in the cave.
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Sontag uses many other metaphors to compare with photography. For example, she describes two husbands, sluggish lumpen-peasants, who are lured into joining the King’s Army and in return were rewarded with anything they wanted. But after the war, both husbands only return back home with pictures taken from around the globe. This metaphor implies that photography has led people to believe that by capturing an experience into an image, it will give them more time to keep experiencing their journey. In other words, photographs allow people to relive their experiences. Sontag implies that photography can be seen as a power that one can hold in their eye to show to the world. She mentions that the reasons why we take photographs are because photographs function as proof and testimony, that we feel is worth to capture at that moment. Another reason photograph is taken because people can create moments that can then be shared with people who were not around when the photos were taken. Photographs can be felt by others, in other words, people who are not present in the photograph can feel like they are part of it, imagining that they are in the photograph. Sontag says that with photography, we are able to look through the image to see every little detail of it, the reality. People take photographs to capture anything they wish, unlike with painting, you can capture every detail. Susan Sontag mentions that photographs aren’t just images to people, they also contain messages or meanings.
Photography gives people a chance to have their own perspective of what a photograph means to them, give their own ideas of what it represents. Sontag believed that photographs are what shape our lives, especially in today’s world. She shows us that these photographs are a mere representation, a small fragmentation of the truth. We see and absorb hundreds, thousands of photographs every day and we do not know the people in these photos or why these photos were taken, and we quickly jump to give them meaning and think we know what they are all about. I will argue ethics has created the idea that we develop our own idea about what is right and wrong in a photograph since it’s based on our experiences and values, on how we visualize the whole world.
Sontag compares the allegory of the shadows in the cave to photography by saying that you can adjust, change, retouch photos to make something seem true, even if it’s not. In my case study, Figure 1, Sontag references photos taken in FSA (Farm Security Administration) project as an example of interpretation. Photographers “would take dozens of frontal pictures of one of their sharecropper subjects until satisfied that they had gotten just the right look on film”. This states that photographer, Walker Evans, would take various photos of the same person until he was satisfied with his message. Evans’ aim with this photograph was to record the social conditions during the Great Depression. He wanted to show the world what Burroughs’ life was like. Evans was taking images that became part of American history, to show the reality during the depression. Sontag states that “A photograph of 1900 that was affecting then because of its subject would, today, be more likely to move us because it is a photograph taken in 1900” (16).
For example, Burroughs seemed to be in discomfort when this image was taken of her. If an audience did not have the back story of this image, one might say that she looks uncomfortable, depressed, and confused as to why this picture of her was taken. Ethical content alienated in the truth, we think we know the truth of what is going on in the photograph. The truth behind this photograph of Burroughs is that her young face is being aged prematurely by hard work, anxiety, and hardships of life in the Great Depression. Photography can only show us the surface of a photo, allowing the viewer to decide what the reality is. Photographers have control over the way a picture can make us feel and what the photograph can make us think. Sontag states “To collect photographs is to collect the world” (1). Even though we are getting a clear picture of the world, we are just getting a part of the world instead of seeing it as a whole. When we look at a photo, we think we know the truth, but we really don’t, like in Plato’s Cave. The people in the cave see the shadows of objects, they don’t see the real truth, what these objects really are. Similarly, nowadays when we view a photo on our phones or in magazines or see movies and images on television we think we know the truth, but the truth is mediated.
The photograph or television screen is one frame of a larger picture that we don’t have access to. As audiences, we are being isolated from the truth since we are only being shown a specific message that the photographer wants us to agree with them. But if we do not know what artists intentions are for taking that photograph or why they’re doing it, we can have a different perspective of what exactly the photographers want us to understand. Photography can be interpreted in many different ways in order for us to understand the photograph. Photographs have become more of an ethical position than moral values since people can view photograph to fit in their own experiences and values. Sontag mentions that photographs change our perspective on what is worth viewing, and what we are entitled to observe. Sontag states that “Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire” (2). Sontag makes a general statement that photography provides the idea of ethics. An example of how people can interpret photography is how sentimental a photo is to them. When we take a photo, we don’t necessarily reflect reality as a whole. In other words, we only pick what we believe or hope that reality is because of ethics, we think we know what is right and wrong in the photographs. Instead of trying to understand the photo as a whole, our eyes can be drawn part of the picture in which we even jump into what might be the truth of the photo. This is what Sontag try to explain in her essay that we can easily falsely interpreted the photo because we try to relate it with our own experiences.
Photography can give us the knowledge of what the world if we accept the world as the way we see it instead of how the photographer wants us to see it. Nowadays, we have begun to alienate ourselves from the world since photography is our new way of receiving knowledge. Susan Sontag mentions that photographs have permitted us to change the way we think about what is worth looking at on a photo. She states that “In teaching us a new visual code, 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” (1). Sontag argues that we have the ability to manipulate photos since photographs can be touched up and enlarged. And the ethics of seeing have given us the impression that we can store the world into our mind. I argue with Sontag because photographs can hide more than what they are revealing to us, and we just pick what’s worth looking at instead of studying the background of the photo. Photographers can just capture a specific moment, which doesn’t necessarily mean that it is not showing the truth. They make sure that the viewers focus their attention on what they want the attention on.
Ethics has become a big part of photography since it helps guide us on how we take, share, and view photographs. Ethics has given us the power of how we understand a photograph. We all have our perspective about the photograph using what we think we know with our experiences and knowledge. Sontag argues that photography has created an ethics relationship on what we want and don’t want to see. Photographers have control over the way a picture can make us feel and what the photograph can make us think. Because of photography, we have begun to alienate ourselves from the world since photography is our new way of receiving knowledge.”
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What we Chose to See. (2021, Aug 06). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/what-we-chose-to-see/