Audacious with Susan Sontag

4 min. read (or watch the video)

“Hey Folks, this is Alex Oehler in Regina, Saskatchewan.” I say it like this, because that’s how Alec Soth, a photographer and photo book lover in St. Paul, Minnesota, introduces his YouTube videos. I was inspired by him this week. He was reviewing “Backyard Photographs in Times of Turmoil.” That’s an interesting topic. I love photo books — always have. And now that many of us are trapped at home — certainly here in Canada with the third wave of Covid upon us — I think its a good time to go back to these books for some reflection and inspiration.

In 2014 I was strolling through the museum bookshop at the Henning Larson Museum of Art in Umeå, Sweden. I came across a copy of prolific author and thinker Susan Sontag’s celebrated book “On Photography.” Sadly Sontag is no longer with us. Her partner, photographer Anne Leibowitz, documented her painful going from us in series of gripping photographs. What we know of these two public figures’ personal (and intellectually intertwining) relationship is a whole topic on its own. But that’s for another day. Today I want to share a few of Susan’s words, alongside seven portraits taken in Tibet.

“Nomad woman in her yak-hair tent, Kham province“ (Pilgrims, pp. 44-45)

These portraits come from another photographer, one whose work I have cherished since I was a child. Today, I have questions about the moral certainty with which Steve McCurry and so many other white men seem to have traveled the world, taking pictures of the lives of strangers. But I am indebted to this audacity of many a historical picture maker. I grew up with McCurry’s images of the world; from Pakistan to Afghanistan, and beyond. As an anthropologist, I am now hesitant to take pictures of others for a bouquet of reasons. Yet, here we are; myself caught in a mix of doubt and delight.

Should one speak about someone without really knowing them? Sontag thought about this quite a lot. She says: “In this century the older generation of photographers described photography as a heroic effort of attention, an ascetic discipline, a mystic receptivity to the world which requires that the photographer pass through a cloud of unknowing. […] Thought is regarded as clouding the transparency of the photographer’s consciousness, and as infringing on the autonomy of what is being photographed” (1977:116). We now live in another century. What do we do with those who have gone before us?

I find this last thought quite provoking. Like a hunter who holds her breath as she aims and pulls the trigger, so the photographer holds her thoughts, her words, her intellectual framing. On the one hand, she may be silent because she lacks the time, resources, or expertise to make a study of the subject. On the other hand, maybe this poverty frees her from the moral weight of authoritative representation. Maybe it does make room for the subject to express themselves. Maybe not. What do you think? Must we speak of what we do not know? Comment below and subscribe if you like.

“Young pilgrim at the monastery in Labrang “ (pp. 78-79).

By alexoehler

I am an environmental anthropologist at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.