by Grace Sargent, January 24, 2023
In American philosopher and writer Susan Sontag’s In Plato’s Cave, the concept of photography is examined from a philosophical standpoint and connected to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. She details the way in which we as humans interact with photography and the large role it plays in our lives. Ultimately, Sontag proclaims that we remain in Plato’s cave by emphasizing how our consumption of photography is flawed—that we take photographs to show the truth, when in reality, they are mere versions of it. The ideas she presents are incredibly insightful and should be taken into greater consideration by our media-centered society. Philosophers like Sontag encourage valuable introspection that could likely afford each of us a healthier mindset pertaining to media consumption, and ultimately improve our relationship with the media.
Greater Context and Connections
To begin the discussion of Sontag’s piece, we must first understand the work from which she draws upon: Plato’s Allegory of a Cave. Although Sontag’s In Plato’s Cave talks specifically about photography, Plato was actually interested in investigating our relationship with knowledge and our view of the world as a whole, and he painted an obscure picture in order to set the stage for his theory. Plato describes an alternate universe where a group of people exist who have experienced their entire lives within a cave, and they have been restrained in a way where they are only able to view shadows of statues created by other people. For a long time they view these shadows as a true form of something—a man, woman, or horse. However, when they are forced out of their protective cave, they come to the realization that the shadows they took to be the truth were mere versions of the real objects that exist in our world. Plato then connected this with our perception of our surroundings, explaining that we are constantly misinterpreting false forms of reality as the truest ones. Overall, he implored us to seek greater knowledge, education, and understanding. Though his work is thousands of years old, its message is timeless; as a society, one of our main goals at all times should always be to actively search for new knowledge and make an attempt to constantly enlighten ourselves, moving ever-closer to the actual “truth.”
Sontag takes Plato’s brilliant approach and applies it specifically to humanity’s relationship with photography, aptly pointing out how centered it is around absolute reliance. She heavily emphasizes Plato’s aforementioned theory of forms, which is a crucial concept. Sontag clarifies how we believe photographs to maintain “narrowly selective transparency,” and contrasts it with photography’s subjective reality (Sontag 4). In other words, we see images as the entire truth and fail to recognize how they are manipulated and presented to us. A wonderful example Sontag provides is one quite common to us: not believing in something until we are given a picture of it, consequently proving its existence in our eyes. This directly correlates to the group of people in Plato’s cave, and how they wrongly viewed the shadows to be the absolute truth. In our modernized situation, the photograph is the misinterpreted truth, while the subject of the image is the real truth.
Here it becomes crystal clear how, despite all the time that has elapsed since Plato’s allegory, we as a society remain stuck inside his cave—we have not yet mastered the ability to reach a greater depth of understanding regarding the media presented to us. In order to fully understand where Sontag is coming from, we must be shown instances where her point is validated. In her piece In Plato’s Cave, she gives the strong example of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photography project conducted in the 1930s, where people from this organization were sent out to capture images of the effects of significant events such as the Great Depression. While one may believe that these photos are irrefutably unbiased, such an assumption isn’t necessarily accurate due to the intentions of the photographers as they capture their carefully planned shots. At the end of the day, they were trying to present images of impoverished, grief stricken people. The pictures showcased to the public emulated this strong bias, similar to how the countless amount of photographs in our life now contain hidden truths. It is because of this that we cannot take images as entire truths of something. Rather, we should be more inquisitive of what is presented: what is being photographed? Who is photographing it? Why is this photographing taking place? These are all contextual questions that can help us uncover the truth that is being obscured, and can—referring back to Plato’s desires—aid us in our journey to acquiring greater knowledge and understanding. Furthermore, they will propel us further out of where we remain: Plato’s cave.
In conclusion, both Plato and Sontag present extremely thought-provoking approaches to areas of our life we tend to shield from deep questioning: knowledge and photography. Through their developed discussions, we are able to gain a better understanding as to where they are each coming from, but also to use them in conjunction with looking further into a singular idea. By listening to Plato, we realize that he has found a flaw in our interpretation of the world, urging us to take necessary steps in improving it. Subsequently, by listening to Sontag, we recognize those same faults in our viewing of photography, and how we should alter our damaging behaviors. By intently listening to each of them and viewing them as pieces in conversation, we are one step closer to reforming the way in which we approach modern photography.
Plato, and J. M. Cooper. Complete Works /Edited with Introduction and Notes by John M. Cooper. Hackett, 1997.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. RosettaBooks, 2005.