Long before the age of smartphones and social media, Susan Sontag wrote about photography in her essay “Plato’s Cave.” Even in 1974, when the essay was published, she was concerned about the way people felt the need to photograph whatever they saw. She says, “It would not be wrong to speak of people having a compulsion to photograph: to turn experience itself into a way of seeing.” That italic is hers, not mine. She emphasizes the very feeling I have as I go about my day to day life armed with an iPhone. Indeed, her thoughts on photography become eerie when you think of how much worse it is now that everyone carries a camera with them everywhere they go all of the time.
Sontag seems like she was a true intellectual whose philosophical thoughts are not easy to digest, and to be honest I don’t feel like I have complete understanding of her ideas in this essay, but certain parts stand out to me as they feel even truer now than when they were written. One such part: “A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it—by limiting experience in search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir.” How many times have I at least partially refused an experience because I was busy looking at it through a screen? How many times have I thought about how my experience would translate into a post on some sort of social media?
I recently visited a ranch where my friend lives, a ranch with horses, goats, dogs and a cat named Sweetie. The most I’ve been around horses is at this ranch. It had been about year since I’d last been there, so the horses intimidated me again. It is strange and exhilarating to be around these large animals. You know what they look like. Horses are visually everywhere, but I’ve hardly stood next to a real one, petted one, smelled one, watched them flick off the flies, feel their velvet noses. I even saw and petted a foal.
I broke up the experience with my recordings of it. I took pictures and short videos for Snapchat and Instagram. I felt the need to preserve my memories and share a novel experience with others who have followed me on social media. I swung back and forth between being there in the moment, and handling a phone, looking at the horses through a screen.
I’ve struggled with this at Disneyland, where there seems to be a picturesque detail wherever you look, and at museums where they let you photograph the exhibits. I’ve struggled with this in nature, and now because of social media, even before I eat. Isn’t it strange to pause before eating your sushi or tacos and have to take a picture to post to social media because you feel compelled to remember it forever and show others that you experienced it? In all honesty, if someone made me take a trip to some place I would love to go and said it would be free except I was not allowed to take photographs or post anything online, it would give me some anxiety. No record of what I did? No memories preserved forever? No way to share with others what I did? It shouldn’t trouble me as much as it initially does. Isn’t memory and experience more valid than a photo? Not anymore. What Sontag says rings true: “Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it, and participation in a public event comes more and more to be equivalent to looking at it in photographed form.”
I’m not saying that there’s anything inherently wrong with taking pictures, or wanting to preserve your memories, or even with social media, but there’s something that feels wrong with feeling so compelled to have a record of what’s happening that you continually remove yourself from the moment with that running stream of thought of what is worth taking a picture of, how to get a good shot, and what to post online. Going back to Sontag, “Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.”