Book Review — On Photography by Susan Sontag

'Tosin Adeoti
4 min readApr 5, 2023

Last night, I finished On Photography by Susan Sontag. Sontag, who died in 2004, was an American philosopher and political activist whose works have caused her to be described as one of the most influential critics of her generation. The book was written in 1977.

I have to say that this is the most boring book I have read this year so far. The book is a collection of essays that aim to examine how photographs, often captured by travelers or tourists, can represent a collection of the world and influence our perception and interaction with it. Because her views were set in the 1970s, she took a holistic view of photography in the age of capitalism in America.

One of the more curious things is her insistence that even at that time, there was widespread use of modern photography to the extent that it had created an oversaturation of visual material. According to her, “just about everything has been photographed,” and this excess of imagery has changed our expectations of what we should or can view. This was a period when, if I remember correctly, less than half of all American homes had a camera. Compare that to today when more than 85% of all American adults have a smartphone.

Through photographs, we have greater access to knowledge and experiences of history and distant lands. However, this also means that photographs may replace direct experience, limiting our understanding of reality. To her credit, she may be the prophetess who rightly predicted that those who are fixated on taking photographs risk losing being in the moment and even doing their part in saving the situation.

“The individual who seeks to record cannot intervene, and that the person who intervenes cannot then faithfully record.”

Does this strike a chord? How many times have we seen people record people in pain when their best action at the time would have been to save the fellow’s life?

#WIL Photographs were first used in police cases by the Paris police in the murderous roundup of Communards in June 1871.

Sontag also notes that the constant exposure to photographic images can desensitize us to horrific human experiences. We become numb to the violence, suffering, and injustice captured in photographs, and this may hinder our ability to empathize with others. Furthermore, children may be exposed to such experiences before they are ready to process them, leading to confusion and trauma.

Sontag introduced me to photography legends like David Octavius Hill, Edward Weston, Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, Eugene Atget, among others, but you will be hard-pressed to see any sustained analysis of the work of any of these photographers. This could make the book a confusing read. As she rambles on in the review of selected photographs, you expect her to acknowledge those who have taken the images and provide context. I waited in vain.

But what really exhausted me about this book is the absence of photographs. Given that the book’s primary focus was to delve into the world of photography, it was reasonable to expect visual aids to accompany the author’s descriptions. Regrettably, not a single photograph was included in the entire volume. As a result, the reading experience became a tedious and monotonous journey through complex sentences, featuring an impressive lexicon but failing to engage the reader visually.

And it could be because she herself was not a photographer. Because some of her ramblings were shocking:

“Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder- a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.”

How is this correct:

“…like a man’s fantasy of having a gun, knife, or tool between his legs. Still, there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them…”

Everybody I know wants to be photographed at one point or another in their lives. Most people I know do not mind being photographed at all. And therein lies the major setback with this book. She presents her opinions as facts when they are clearly not. Moreover, I have read that several parts of the book were lifted from other places without attribution.

Still, if you read Sontag’s profile before reading the book, it might guide you to pick up a few positives. She is a philosopher who clearly thinks. Some of the thoughts and ideas are great, but like philosophers, you may find them difficult to read. And thinking about it now, perhaps the book would be better if it were written in today’s language without the need to sound highfalutin.

I wish you the best with this book.