Susan Sontag

So Much Depends on Photography

“India is in a constant state of photographic decay– I mean that in a good way,” Jimmy Chalk said to me, stepping over a shredded bicycle tire. He was approaching a wall that had once been painted with Tamil letters, but was now faded and cracking, the paint curling outwards like shards of bark. “You see what I mean?” he asked. “Every wall, every bit of sidewalk, is gradually decaying here, and this gives every wall or shed or storefront a wonderful visual texture, or mixing of colors and composition of these unnatural shapes.” I could see what he meant as he came nearer to the wall, which seemed like a relic from some older, forgotten age. Its bright colors had faded in places but remained in others. There were watermarks and what looked like bullet holes riddling the length of the wall, cutting through the text of the Tamil, which is a script of curved, crossed and house-like images. In the United States such walls would have been painted over years ago to keep the appearance of cleanliness, order, progress. We could only find walls such as these in tucked- away corners that the sanitizing hand of gentrification has passed over. But every surface of every object in Chennai seemed to be like this wall: faded paint, crumbling, pockmarked, rusted – a whole universe of texture and color.

Photo by Jimmy Chalk.

Jimmy had been given the task of guiding me through a crash course on photography for my new job. We went out into Chennai armed with cameras to experiment with different photography techniques. He showed me how to adjust the lenses, the aperture settings, the length of the exposure, the white balance – and what difference it meant to take pictures with the different settings. We wandered to an open playground where a number of children were playing cricket using stacked cinderblocks as their wicket. The red dirt of the field rose into the air from the clatter of their bare feet chasing the ball, creating a surreal orange glow in the air. This was perfect light, Jimmy said. He went over the speed settings, how to frame the shot to catch the batter in action, how to keep the moving ball from blurring in the shots. We waded into the game and tried to take pictures of the action. The Indian children were either flamboyant or shy around the camera and these two American strangers, either waving and laughing or perhaps hiding in the folds of their mother’s sari. Both made equally lovely pictures.

A new student of photography, such as myself, will find no shortage of source material to study on the subject. There are extensive manuals and sources of instruction on camera settings, quality of light, and generally taking good pictures.  There are also a number of more academic treatises on the subject of photography itself as a form of expression. Perhaps the best chronicler of photography in an analytical sense is Susan Sontag, whose 1977 collection of essays entitled On Photography first addressed the implications of a photograph. In a later work entitled Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag notes that one of the principal things distinguishing photographs from other forms of art is that a photograph purports to represent truth, to be an accurate reflection of the actual realities of the world the moment it was taken. She quotes Virginia Woolf in saying, “photographs are not an argument; they are simply a crude statement of fact addressed to the eye.”

Photo by Jimmy Chalk.

Sontag then spends the rest of the book laboring to disprove Woolf’s glib remark, noting how easily the framing of a photograph, a caption, a convenient lack of context, can obscure or change the meaning of the image. She requires the whole book to make her argument because her position contradicts what reason and experience might suggest: here is a picture before me; this happened; this was real. Photographs present themselves to us as indisputable proof about what stood before the eye of the beholder at the moment the picture was taken. Photographic evidence still carries a good deal of weight in the courts. Even in the age of Photoshop tampering, a good deal of proof is required to demonstrate that the image isn’t true, because the base assumption is that it is credible until proven otherwise. Unlike literature or paintings, for example, the mind assumes the accuracy of the photographic image.

But the photograph is also an impossible object, a captured moment that once was but can never be again. In this way it is perpetually false, a present-time rendering of something that has long since vanished from the world. As literary theorist Roland Barthes puts it, “[w]hat the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.” Anyone who has seen a photograph has had this experience. Consider Capa’s infamous Death of a Loyalist Soldier, which allegedly captures a soldier in the Spanish Civil War at the moment he has been shot, flung backwards by the bullet, his rifle airborne just beyond his outstretched arm, his shadow behind him on the hill waiting to catch his falling body. This soldier was killed only once, yet his death replays ad infinitum in the consciousness of the world through this photograph. It has taken on its own life, completely separate from his.

Consequently, we take a great weight upon our shoulders when we pick up a camera. In On Photography, Sontag warns that “to photograph is to appropriate the thing being photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and, therefore, like power.” Few of us consider such things as we are snapping photos of our night on the town and posting them on our Facebook profiles. How often do we stop to consider how we are representing the world, what part of the world we are allowing to take a life of its own, to live on forever, when we take a picture?

Photo by Jimmy Chalk.

This may have been the most important thing that Jimmy said as we turned from the cricket game and began walking toward his studio. There was a responsibility inherent in this work. First, to do justice to the people whom we would photograph. And second, to do justice to the world we chose to immortalize, to take great care in the things we chose to transform by photographing them. Consider the composition, the arrangement of objects. Consider the space, the balance of light and dark elements, the shapes. Consider the story. That woman is looking toward something. Shall we photograph her from behind that we too may see it, or shall her gaze in itself be the story? What are we saying about the world that people will believe is true? Should we say such a thing?

So we stepped back through the gates and over the garbage around which a group of stray dogs had gathered to pick the leftovers, and I thought of William Carlos Williams. So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens. So much depends upon the simple composition of objects in a pleasing shape, the quality of light, shadow, color, texture, the framing of the action to create a story.

In the days following my class with Jimmy, I have found myself studying the world more closely, examining the lines that compose the world, the way objects catch light and then throw it back, and especially, what all of this means. It has reminded me of the remarkable nature of our presence as observers in this world, the remarkable nature of beauty of the world itself. And this is the gift that a photographer can give to the world, and that photography can give to those who would wade into its deeper waters.