Susan Sontag, born in New York City in 1933, was an accomplished literary artist and human rights activist. In addition to non-fiction she wrote poetry, novels and short stories; Sontag also authored and directed four feature films and a number of plays. "In Plato's Cave" is the essay Sontag uses to open her 2001 book, "On Photography," a critical analysis on the role of photography in society, particularly as mass media. The book won the 1977 National Book Critics' Circle Award for Criticism.
The title of Sontag's essay references The Allegory of the Cave by Plato in his book "The Republic." Though she never refers to the piece in the essay, it is necessary to understand the original to better grasp Sontag's analogy. Plato describes a dark cave with prisoners who are chained and unable to turn their heads. They can only see the wall in front of them, but not a fire burning behind them, nor can they see the puppeteers using real objects to cast shadows on the wall that they can see. The idea is that the prisoners mistake shadows for real objects. Their experience becomes their reality, even though they mistake shadows for the genuine.
Jan Troost, a researcher and theoretical physicist, notes that Sontag draws an analogy between our viewing of photographs and the prisoners in Plato's cave. The reason being that the multitude of available photographic images leads us to construct the whole world in our head without ever having actually witnessed the people, places or events in the photographs.
Sontag repeatedly compares photography to prose and illustration on how the art forms interpret the world. She does touch on the merits of photography, such as the ability to furnish evidence that something does or did exist. However, she more often criticizes the "shady commerce between art and truth," noting that photographers who may want to mirror reality actually manipulate subjects in favor of style, taste or delivering a particular message.
Understanding vs. Consumerism
She describes other art forms as hand made visual statements and interpretations of reality, however photographs are merely small discontinuous particles, the "miniatures of reality to make and acquire" for the masses. Sontag further criticizes photography by calling it a rite that's widely practiced as an amusement, such as sex or dancing. The mass produced cameras document sequences of human consumption, serving as cosmopolitan trophies to justify a person's activities and possibly their own existence.
- Susan Sontag Foundation: Susan Sontag Biography
- Susan Sontag Foundation: On Photography
- Jan Troost: A Critical Discussion of "On Photography" by Susan Sontag
- University of Washington: The Allegory of the Cave
- TheHistoryGuide: Plato, The Allegory of the Cave
- Picador; On Photography; Susan Sontag; August 15, 2001; pp. 3-24
- Thomas Northcut/Lifesize/Getty Images