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volume 10
october 2007

On reading pictures


  An essay on Sebastião Salgado and Susan Sontag
by Hans Durrer
  Susan Sontag doesn't like the migration pictures of photographer Sebastião Salgado. Looking at them, so she writes, compassion can only flounder and whither away in abstraction. Salgado's pictures, Hans Durrer says, can be read very differently, though, if only you let them take you into their reality.
1 Left: Susan Sontag

Pictures of sufferance. "Taken in thirty-five countries, Salgado's migration pictures group together, under this single heading, a host of different causes and kinds of distress. Making suffering loom larger, by globalizing it, may spur people to feel they ought to 'care' more. It also invites them to feel that the sufferings and misfortunes are too vast, too irrevocable, too epic to be much changed by any local, political intervention. With a subject conceived on this scale, compassion can only flounder — and make abstract. But all politics, like all history, is concrete," Susan Sontag writes in Looking at War.

  True: all politics is concrete, all history is concrete. But is it likewise true that when the subject of sufferings and misfortunes is "conceived on this scale, compassion can only flounder — and make abstract"? Well yes, if one so wishes, if one so decides to 'see' it that way. Except that such 'seeing' can only be done when taking a heavily biased look at these photographs for it is of the "I see what I believe, I see what I want to see"-variety, untroubled by what the photographs actually show. If one however refrains — as best as one can — from interfering in what one's eyes are showing oneself, if one makes an effort to not let one's ego get into the way, and, last but not least, if one takes the necessary time to contemplate the pictures before one's eyes then new worlds might reveal themselves — which is still one of the best reasons to look at photographs.
2 Sebastião Salgado's conscience. It is with amazement and awe that I look at Sebastião Salgado's pictures, I marvel at what my eyes show me, and at what I allow them to see. The longer I let these images sink in, the closer I feel to the persons portrayed. Not least because I allow these feelings to become prominent, and I do so because I'm willing to experience them. Understanding is a feeling, writes Robert Adams in Beauty in Photography. And for understanding to happen, one needs to be ready.

Let us take a photo from Migrations ...

What do I see here? What does this image show me? Where was it taken, and for what purpose? What I see is this: A young, attractive, well-dressed woman with painted lips and painted eyebrows in front of a barrier behind which one can distinguish hands that cling to the bars as well as occasional faces that look on. I don't understand what my eyes show me, I can't figure out the context. Is this a prison? What does the woman see? Where is she looking at? The caption says: "The Rodoviario de Tieté bus terminal in São Paulo is the main gateway for new migrants to the city. Every day, hundreds of buses bring people dreaming of El Dorado. This young woman has just arrived from the provinces in her best attire; on the other side of the barrier, people wait for friends or family members arriving in the city to visit or settle. São Paulo, Brazil. 1996." Knowing this — for I want to trust these words — I'm beginning to see the picture the photographer has wanted to show me. And now, and only now — because I know now what I'm looking at — this picture can show me more than the famous thousand words could tell. So what does this picture tell me?

  What first springs to mind are pictures of the Rodoviarios in Brazil's Northeast where I had spent some months travelling. Why it is the ones of Recife, Maceio, Natal, and São Luis, the bigger ones, I cannot say. But as soon as I start jotting down the names of these bus terminals, new ones emerge before my inner eye. Teresina, Parnaiba, Fortaleza ... it is a movie that I watch, without a plot, only a sequence of images and impressions, seemingly unrelated, in rapid succession; a sense of being lost in the world comes over me.
  It does not bother me that the young woman in the photo has no name. I feel drawn to her, I identify with her insecurity — as I imagine it —, her efforts to show firmness and dignity, her worries and hopes for a good future — I wish I could protect her.
3 Violence and photography. "A portrait that declines to name its subject becomes complicit, if inadvertently, in the cult of celebrity that has fuelled an insatiable appetite for the opposite sort of photograph: to grant only the famous their names demotes the rest to representative instances of their occupations, their ethnicities, their plights," Susan Sontag writes in Regarding the Pain of Others.
  With all due respect: this is nonsense. Not because the young woman in this photo is not representative of her plight yet because she is not only representative but can also be perceived, felt, and identified with, as a person.
  The more I've appreciated Salgado's work — especially the 12-year-project Genesis that he is presently working on and that aims at documenting still pristine parts of the world such as the Namib desert or the Galapagos islands — the more critical I've judged (some) of Sontag's views. She deems, for instance, aggressiveness one of the characteristics of photography. In Plato's cave, the first of the six essays that constitute On Photography, she writes "... there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them by seeing them as they never see themselves. By having knowledge of them they can never have. It turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder. A soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time."
  One can easily agree that "there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture," especially if one thinks of the pack of professional photographers at the international film festival in Cannes. But the notion that "to photograph people is to violate them" is not only far-fetched, it is simply absurd, as is Sontag's reasoning — "... by seeing them as they never see themselves. By having knowledge of them they can never have." Granted, this is subtly observed and it is also true, but what has this to do with violating people? And even if one agrees that photos "turn people into objects that can be symbolically possessed," that knowledge is still a far cry from violating them.
4 The reality of photographs. There are of course people who use a camera in the way they use a weapon and "to shoot pictures" is a common but (sadly) rarely reflected expression. However, to state that "... as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder. A soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time," seems as far off as the French intellectuals whom Sontag years later will be scolding — in: Regarding the Pain of Others for claiming "that war, like everything else that appears real, was 'médiatique'."
  Photos — contrary to paintings — appear strangely real. And although I know that a photo can only be a photo — René Magritte's "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" makes the point that a picture of a pipe is not a pipe but a picture of a pipe — this photo of two gemsbok in the Namib desert (see on the left) seems more than a photo. It makes me feel like I was there when it was taken for as much as photos may at times seem real as much reality at times seems like a photograph.

  • Adams, Robert (1981), Beauty in photography. Essays in defense of traditional values. Millertown, New York: Aperture.
  • Salgado, Sebastião (2000), Migrations. Humanity in transition. Millertown, New York: Aperture.
  • Sontag, Susan (1978), On photography. London: Penguin.
  • Sontag, Susan (2002), "Looking at war." In: The New Yorker, December 9, 2002.
  2007 © Hans Durrer / Soundscapes