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Is Photography Really a Form of Appropriation?

Hello and welcome to the second installment of SnapShot, my new blog discussing all things photographic.

I had intended for this week's post to be a straightforward discussion about Street Photography and why I’m drawn to it as a genre. But then I re-read Susan Sontag’s photography essay, In Plato’s Cave, which prompted me to take a look at my Street Photography in the context of some of her words.

Sontag’s first essay in the On Photography collection deals with the notion that people view the world around them as if they are sitting by a fire in a cave. The shadows cast on the walls by the fire is, the people believe, the full extent of their world. They have no knowledge of any wider world outside the cave.

Sontag posits that, in terms of photography, photographers are the ones creating the shadows in the cave and therefore help control the narrative about the world around us.

She states:

“To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting

oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge - and

therefore like power.”

These words prompted me to consider whether my Street Photography images are a form of appropriation of the world around me or simply a form of documentation and art.

I would have to agree that photography can be a means of appropriating the thing being photographed, although I had never really considered this in connection to my photographs. It’s certainly not my motivation for making my photos, but that doesn’t stop it being a form of appropriation. The photograph below is a good case in point.

When I spotted this man he was walking towards me, and at first glance he appeared to be a stylish, interesting figure. The scene presented to me just worked from a photographic perspective.

My photographer's instinct kicked in and I captured an image of that particular moment in time. At that point I didn’t feel like I was appropriating anything. I was simply moved enough by the scene to make a photograph.

It was only as I pressed the shutter that I spotted the expression on his face, and that he was looking directly at me. I would have to agree that at this point my actions turned from observation to appropriation. What I’m less sure about though is whether taking the photograph was a good or bad thing, right or wrong. What I am conflicted by is that I know he saw me take his photograph. He saw me intrude on his private moment, albeit on a public street.

This second shot is another Street Photography image I made. This time the subject was unaware that I was photographing him (although his dog knew!). I am less conflicted about having taken this photograph. Why is that?

Both scenes caught my attention for the same reasons: both were interesting moments with interesting looking characters. However, I don’t have the same feeling of conflict about intruding on or appropriating the second man in any way. I believe now, having considered these images within the context of In Plato’s Cave, that it is simply because he didn’t see me take his photo. Does this mean that I didn’t appropriate his private moment or is it just that I feel less guilty because I didn’t get caught?!

One thing I can say for sure is that I feel a greater emotional connection to the first image than to the second. The reason for this is partly because we can see the subject’s eyes in the photo. This usually helps the viewer to connect with an image. But I also think it is largely because I know he was looking right at me.

Where I disagree with Sontag is on this appropriation leading to knowledge and power. I am none the wiser about either of these men, having taken their photos. I have gained no more knowledge about their lives, where they are going, or who they are texting. Thus, by extension, I have no greater power over them, their world, or mine for taking the photos.

Sontag also writes in her essay:

“Photographed images do not seem to be statements about

the world so much as pieces of it.”

This I definitely agree with. My Street Photography images are never made in an attempt to make a statement, nor are my Photojournalism images for that matter. When I frame a scene in my viewfinder and press down on the shutter button I am simply trying to capture a moment in time as it happens. No judgement, no statement, just a snippet of the world as it moves around me. It is why I find it so difficult to title my images!

I believe that the photographer’s role is a neutral one. We should not be telling the viewer what to think of the image. They should for them to decide. And yet, in terms of Plato’s cave, photographs often help script the narrative of a story. Surely though, some of the responsibility falls to the viewer to look beyond the image, to step out of the cave.

One final note regarding knowledge and power. I would have to concede that, in analysing my work through the prism of Sontag’s words, I have started to gain a better insight into why I feel so connected to some of my images. In that respect I have definitely gained knowledge.

However, far from feeling greater power, I feel humbled by the fact that a subject looking directly at me while I take their photo can create such a sense of connection. In that respect I feel it is the subject who holds all the power, not me.

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