WHAT WOULD SONTAG SAY? • Fred Ritchin

Furthermore, Benjamin’s concept of the “aura of the original” becomes anachronistic once the copy of an image becomes indistinguishable from its source, as is now the case in the digital era. Given the current plethora of imagery, one can also argue that the “aura” of not only the image but of that which it depicts are largely effaced, transformed at times into “branding.” And as synthetic images that resemble photographs but do not require cameras are fabricated in greater numbers via artificial intelligence systems, the witnessing function of the photograph will most probably further deteriorate.

As a result, iconic photographs rarely exist today, with few images able to emerge from the billions produced that command a societal focus, as was the case in the last century when newspapers and magazines could highlight certain photographs on the printed page, lending them their journalistic authority. The advent of social media has turned nearly every photograph into an opinion that can be refuted, rather than a referent establishing the visible facts of a situation.

This rupture requires our attention. For example, recalling photography’s previous ability to establish what occurred elsewhere, many in the United States are clamoring for photographs to be released that show the pulverized bodies of young schoolchildren killed by gunmen with military-grade assault rifles. They argue that this will bring society to its senses and lead to more rational gun laws. Their arguments often reference other such images, including those published in 1955 of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s body that was photographed after having been beaten and lynched by American racists, or the 1972 photograph of 9-year-old Kim Phuc burning from napalm in Vietnam, both of which are considered to have been powerful stimulants for societal change.

In 1945, before these two photographs were published, Susan Sontag commented on her own experience of. viewing photographs of the Bergen-Belsen and Dachau concentration camps for the first time: “Nothing I have seen—in photographs or in real life—ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously. Indeed, it seems plausible to me to divide my life into two parts, before I saw those photographs (I was twelve) and after, although it was several years before I understood fully what they were about.”

Over seventy-five years ago, Sontag and many others could be moved by photographs of those suffering, dead and dying. But today, immersed in a torrent of imagery along with other media, the relationship with photographs is markedly different, so that what Susan Sontag explored in her seminal book, On Photography, seems in many essential ways to describe a previous medium, one that remains largely in our rearview mirrors.

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