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[feature] on "on photography"

encounters with cameras, memory, and Susan Sontag

I forget exactly when I first became uneasy with my photograph. 

All I know is that at some point I stopped smiling with my teeth in pictures, having realized that it revealed the gums I believed were too prominent. This small act of control was little comfort: My smile still burst out, too easily, in the infinite moments outside the camera. But I couldn’t help but feel deeply troubled by the records of myself frozen in candids and staged family photos—a self I was finding increasingly unwieldy at eleven, twelve, and thirteen. 


You can read the change in my face like a book. My closed-mouth smile begins to appear in sixth or seventh grade and lingers nearly ten years later. It’s there, thin and anxious, in the photos from the early days of my freshman year, around the time that I started my first seminar at Brown. It was a gender studies course in a stuffy Page Robinson classroom where we read bell hooks and Alison Bechdel. It was there that I was formally introduced to Susan Sontag, an essayist who wrote on contemporary culture and is famous for, among other things, popularizing the idea of camp. In class, we pored over excerpts from her 1977 collection On Photography and debated her searing claims about the role of the camera, the photographer, and the photo in American life. 

Sontag’s attitude towards photography is mercurial, marked by fascination and distrust in equal measure. In her essay “In Plato’s Cave,” she writes: “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.” She refuses to downplay the power of the photo, arguing that it is all too easy for the camera to deform the image it captures. “Photographs,” she further posits, “alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe.” Unlike other forms of representation like the painting or the novel, the camera makes a claim to authenticity that we should regard with suspicion. Like the Greeks in Plato’s cave, we may find that we have abandoned the real and surrounded ourselves with shadow images in its wake. 


I was electrified. I came home from my first semester of college armed with Sontag’s words as a defense against unwanted cameras. “Photography is a violent art,” I needled my mother during a charged stand-off at Thanksgiving when I caught her sneaking pictures of me. Exasperated, she circled the counter brandishing her phone while I hid for cover behind the mashed potatoes. 

“Why can’t you just be normal about this?” 


I snapped something back about the language of “shooting” and “taking.” It was more than worthy of an eye roll, my appropriation of a landmark text for my own teenage concerns. But I was all bared teeth, looking to annoy my mother into submission. I could feel my wrinkled blouse, my puffy cheeks, my hair sticking to my forehead all wrong, and I was itchy with panic. It worked; she leveled me with a long look of disappointment, then turned to the stuffing and let it be. Immediately, the victory was hollowed, made foolish. 

I wanted to believe my hatred of my picture was more than just a reflection of my own shallow insecurity. I wanted Sontag’s righteousness, her intelligence, her cynicism. But maybe that’s part of the problem—we are constantly running up against our own reflections.  


Even the most avid photographer must acknowledge that the presence of the camera is jarring. Its appearance charges the air and interrupts conversation. Sontag is at her most urgent when writing about this “aggression implicit in every use of the camera,” and our hunger to claim, to shoot, and to document. Our consumption of images mirrors our consumption of just about everything else. 

It is almost involuntary, this feeding, and we learn it young. In middle school, when hangouts revolved around planning photo shoots for our newly formed Instagram accounts, I would pose miserably with my friends in various configurations. Afterwards, we all crowded around the offending phone to judge whether our arms or eyes or hair looked strange, and which pictures were satisfactory and might be posted later with the saturation amped up. It was addictive, gazing at those little pink and yellow apps and waiting for my name or face to appear. Time turned to syrup. How many hours have I spent looking at photos of myself, of friends, of skin, of blue oceans, of silk and neon? I had no language for it then, but who could blame me for my inarticulate distress over how my moving body was caught up in a single instant? 

Sontag spoke about the camera as something akin to a pistol in the 1970s. Even with her prescience, I can hardly imagine what she would have to say about the legions of children, all wanting to be pretty, who now carry one constantly in their backpack pockets. 


There have also been times when the pull of the photograph is quieter, made stranger by circumstance. During the pandemic, my older siblings held our family together with a steady stream of photos of my fast-growing baby nieces and nephews, fueling dinnertime conversation when it seemed there was nothing else easy to discuss. But my own camera roll churned to a halt. What was there to record? 

Of course, there was plenty going on beyond my bedroom. Looking back, I am both horrified by and grateful for the pictures that were taken of the world in those early weeks. A New York Times photo retrospective of 2020 remembers the grand city avenues stripped to their pavement, the billowing medical tents, and the medical professionals wrapped in layers and layers of plastic. Without these photos, I am not sure what my mind would misremember. 

But things started to thaw. When I moved to Providence, I surprised myself with how quickly my camera roll again filled with a thousand nothing pictures—each one a tether to my strange, new city. Even as I was absorbing Sontag, it seemed that I could not stop taking photographs. There’s the first blurry photo from when I discovered the Dickensian lamps on Benefit Street, a snapshot of my freshly made bed (proof to my parents of my survival), a magnificent orange maple. These photos are all poorly lit and off-center,  never meant to be seen by anyone else. They are taken practically; they leave it to my imagination to make the thing beautiful again. 


Over time, I learned about other photographers, too. I examined Diane Arbus’s challenges to subjectivity and Sally Mann’s images of wild children with mussed hair and sideways glances. I read works by thinkers who understood the enormity of the medium: more Sontag, but also writers like André Bazin, who has softer things to say about the photo. “It embalms time,” he claims, “rescuing it simply from its proper corruption.” There’s plenty to critique about Bazin who wrote in the 1940s and romanticizes photography’s objective virtues. But there is also something in his words that, despite everything, I believe.       

Closer to home, I studied how one friend minded her BeReal religiously and found a strange comfort in scrolling through her feed full of snapshots of library sessions and VDub dinners—the rituals of campus life. Another carried a small digital camera that made the act of taking pictures feel sacred, something to treasure instead of tolerate. I posed in their photos, and even began marking certain pictures in my camera roll as “favorites.” These were images that I wanted to return to that conjured the nostalgia befitting of Bazin’s embalmed time or Sontag’s “twilight art”—a medium that is able to turn anything it touches into a talisman.

There was that snapshot of a yellow stray cat, nosing at my glove somewhere during those quiet days of the pandemic. 

Or a video, taken secretly and sent to me later. It’s my voice, deeper than I imagined it to be, carrying a story over the Potomac River. 

Or that one film photo. Four torsos, floating like seeds over the shimmering Narragansett Bay. They are far, far away but you can make out smeared impressions of height and hair color. It’s impossible to see, but you can tell that we’re smiling. That the photographer is smiling back.

I’ve even started saving FaceTime screenshots of people I miss desperately. Their faces are pixelated from the layers of distortion that are required for me to carry them in my pocket—what On Photography would cite as both a “pseudo-presence and a token of absence.”

The collection grows: photos taken, not only of my friends and stray sunbeams in my dorm room and crocus flowers on Power Street, but of myself, too. The further I get from twelve, the more I have found myself willing to record. I’ve started wearing silver jewelry instead of gold. I cut my hair short and plan to keep it that way. I eat olives and blueberries now, both of which I used to despise. I’ve started to linger on things, to press feather-light against feelings that once twisted my stomach apart and sent me running from myself. I still pull at hangnails, spend too much time idle on my phone and hate myself for it. But something has mellowed. 

It lingers—Sontag’s description of alienation, her distrust of even the most casual photo. It stays with me. But I don’t think it is violent, at least not all the time. I don’t think I have it in me to be angry at the camera anymore. 


A memory. It is spring and the photo-taking time of the evening where we swap outfits a dozen times, gathering the courage to leave the warmth of the dorm room and spill into the night. Our makeup brushes are splayed on the table; the music we choose is in the speaker. 

The digital appears, flashing. My shoulders press back, chin thrust forward. I am conscious that I am not exactly me. I am offering my image up, Sontag would chide, as a record of myself instead. But this is one moment I know I will be grateful to hold in my hand.

My friend points the camera high above us and shoots down. Our eyes are closed as if bracing for impact and my cheeks are burst wide with a grin, gums pink and open. I look so, so happy. I am. 

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