Why take photos?

Dec 3, 2016

I finally got around to start reading Susan Sontag's On Photography, which is essential reading that I should have done before or while working on Camera Restricta and that I picked up in many bookshops — around the globe really — but never ended up buying.

At the beginning of the book, describing the camera as “the device that makes real what one is experiencing”, Sontag makes the point that tourist photography both certifies and prevents the experience that is being documented.

It's a lenghty quote I'm afraid, but read on until the end! I think it's quite funny:

As photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure. Thus, photography develops in tandem with one of the most characteristic of modern activities: tourism. [...] Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had.
A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it—by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs. The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel. Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on. The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic—Germans, Japanese, and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures.
Sontag, Susan (1977), On Photography, Penguin Books, London