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Tuesday, January 11, 2022

The Aggression of Photography

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 and themselves.

This 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.


  1. A good deal of the discussion of art in general is a survival of various "primitive" beliefs, such as sympathetic magic: there's not a huge distance between the idea that kidney-shaped food items must be good for kidney complaints and most attempts at the interpretation of visual art.

    The whole point of, say, "conceptual" art was to put all that touchy-feely stuff in the past. In the process, of course, the whole point of art was lost to most people, for whom a nice painting (or even a challenging photograph) is precisely about the touchy-feely stuff that tickles the lizard brain where it likes to be tickled. Naturally enough, people reach for lizard-brain accounts of what is going on for them.

    Besides, how else to account for the fall of Trump or Boris Johnson's current problems than these pins I have been sticking into their likenesses??


  2. These assclowns are, in typical fashion, recycling a twitter outrage they tried to foment last November, which tbh rather undermines the perceived magnitude of the alleged problem: Eeek! Dude Won A Prize!!!