Theoreticians in photography are very very very fond of the idea of photography as an act of aggression, as a harmful act. This is never justified, even slightly, it is accepted as fact, and if you don't know the underpinnings, well, you're just ignorant. They don't know the underpinnings either, though, but they hide this with a well-practiced sneer.
The earliest reference I know, and it is oft-cited, is Sontag. Of course it's Sontag.
Her take on this, though, is not what they think it is. She is describing the photographer's
position, a position of aggression, of taking, and acquisition. Sontag lacked the language to
properly work through this, mainly because she was more interested in being Susan Sontag than
in establishing a firm basis for photography criticism.
As with much else in photography, the photographic process takes an ordinary human interaction
with multiple (usually two) parties, and slices it neatly in two. A portrait makes the
sitter "present" for the viewer, without the corresponding reverse "presence." When I look at
your portrait, I experience my half of a social interaction, but you experience nothing.
In the same way, what Sontag clearly meant was that that photographer acts as an aggressor,
as a looter, and a taker, without the "victim" being correspondingly aggressed against, looted,
or losing anything. I "take" your photo, but you are left unaltered. I am acquisitive about
photographing these African Artifacts, but I do not acquire the artifacts themselves, the
artifacts remain untouched.
Standard academic photo theory completely misses out on this slicing, instead leaning toward
an essentially mystical idea that in some sense the artifacts are literally looted,
that in some sense the woman is raped, and so on, on and on. This is essentially rebranded
"the camera steals the soul" magical thinking.
To put it more bluntly, if a pedo photographed one of my daughters, and then pleasured himself
to a print of this photo, that would be gross but it would in no way harm my daughters. Yes,
he would have committed a vile rape, but only his half of it. Actual harm to my daughter in this
scenario would require at least two things:
First, that she be aware of this act, and second that she be educated in modern photo theory,
and to understand herself to have been in some sense raped.
(if you think this is some sort of defense of CSAM you are a) wrong and b) dumb, please stop reading my blog)
Now, there is a sort of social/psychological basis here. My daughter does understand, at least
roughly, instinctively, how photographs generate a kind of presence. She would undoubtedly feel
grossed out, and she might lean toward the modern theory purely on the basis of her instinctive
understanding of how photos work.
This in no way changes the atavistic attitude that underpins this notion. My daughter, in that icky
eventuality, would be leaning on a primitive soul-stealing attitude about photography, rather
than understanding in a subtle and nuanced way that the photograph slices the interaction in two.
The pervert rapes, but she is un-raped. Ok, so she's 8 or 12 depending on which one, and this might be
a stretch. Nevertheless Sally Mann's children famously understood the difference between a photograph
is not a wildly difficult distinction to draw. It is the correct distinction to draw. It does require
a little sophistication, the natural, atavistic, response is the one that is wrong. It is built on
cognitive machinery that is out of date, that does not grasp the idea of a human interaction
that is split in two by a sufficiently realistic picture.
Nevertheless, the photograph does split the interaction. I do not feel your gaze when you look
upon my portrait. I just do not.
The fact that I know you could, and that at some lizard brain level I am disturbed by that, does not
alter the reality of this slicing.
This is not to entirely reject the feelings of the lizard brain. The lizard brain feels violated, and to
some extent that is potentially a "harm" but it is at best a diffuse harm, a slight harm. How much
weight should be accord it?
Some weight, surely. But not infinite weight. The misplaced feelings of the lizard brain should be respected,
but they should not be allowed to drive. Lizards are notoriously bad drivers.