On Photography: imprisoning reality, possessing the past

By Dexter Yim | 03 June 2019

Human beings are nostalgic animals. We cannot really help looking at photos we took from time to time in order to revisit our past or see how much we have changed over the years. I bet everyone understands this as the ten-year challenge craze sweeps the world. Without photography, we have no choice but to rely on our hazy memories, which are not reliable and verifiable. The art and usefulness of photography unarguably and gradually became indispensable in our daily lives as photography can help us imprison reality and revisit the past at any time. This short article attempts to look into the usefulness and limitations of photography.

As I have mentioned above, humans are always nostalgic for their past, but they are not able to turn time backwards, which explains why they are somehow obsessed with photography. It documents precious moments like marriage, birthdays, graduation and the like. We call these unforgettable moments “reality”, which becomes the past immediately and is uncatchable; so, if we take a photo of these memorable moments, chances are we can revisit these moments whenever we want. In On Photography, Susan Sontag also writes “photographs are a way of imprisoning reality… One can’t possess reality, one can possess images — one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past.” She tries to pinpoint that reality or precious moments can be kept in the form of images and these images actually represent the past which we long to revisit. Seemingly, photography bestows an ability to revisit the past upon us.

On the societal level, photography reveals the truth and fights for justice by either striking a chord among people or arousing reverberations in society. In other words, people’s conscience will be woken or they will mull over problems faced by their society, even countries, if photos taken are powerful and resonant. Take a look at the photo taken by a Hong Kong photographer Sunny Chan below:

Sunny Chan

Photography: Sunny Chan

Clearly, the photo creates a strong dramatic effect by highlighting an elderly woman in colour with the rest in black and white (selective colourisation), thus drawing everyone’s attention to the elderly woman. The photo shows that the woman is scavenging the street in search of disused plastic materials and perhaps cardboard to sell to local recycling plants even though she is hunchbacked. It undoubtedly angles for people’s sympathy but at the same time, it makes people ponder over the reasons why this elder still needs to scavenge the street. The government is usually reprimanded for making this happen. Photography (or this photo) indeed draws everyone’s attention to something less obvious but very important in our society.

However, if photography were so powerful as to allow people to reflect on themselves or shed light on problems, why would problems still exist? Susan Sontag in On Photography explains that “photographed images of suffering does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them. Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more – and more. Images transfix. Images anesthetize.” It is true that we feel shocked when seeing a photo of a hunchbacked elder scavenging the street but may feel it is nothing special if we often see similar photos on the internet or in the newspaper again and again, simply because we get used to it. It is perhaps fair to say photography makes us become numb.

To conclude, photography records a lot of precious moments in our lives and is harnessed as a tool to achieve greater things such as pinpointing problems, be they political, social, or personal, and arousing people’s conscience. Though Sontag tells us that photography may anesthetise people, it still draws people’s attention to something we are oblivious of and grants us a chance to revisit the past whenever we want.

About Dexter:

Raised in Hong Kong, Dexter Yim has dedicated himself to becoming an English teacher and piquing students’ interest in literature and English. He graduated with a master’s degree in Literary Studies from The Chinese University of Hong Kong and is currently studying MSc in Creative Writing at The University of Edinburgh. Hobby-wise, he is interested in photography, poetry, film studies, history, philosophy and travelling. He once worked in Australia and travelled around the world so as to be immersed in different cultures and broaden his horizons. His favourite writers include Haruki Murakami, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, T.S. Eliot and Kazuo Ishiguro. He expends a lot of efforts and time on writing poems related to Hong Kong identities, nostalgia, alienation and loss.

Works Cited:

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. Penguin, 1979.

Image provided by Sunny Chan. They can be contacted via email at: sunnycl0126@gmail.com.

Edited by Ailish Woollett

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