Can I Take Your Picture? Reading Susan Sontag’s "On Photography" and the Rhetoric of Photographing Strangers

students posing in front of UT tower


Sarah Sussman

Image Credit: 

Photo for "Photographing Strangers" assignment by Josh Guerra

Coupling a reading with a hands-on lesson plan like the one that I am about to share can be tricky, and I wouldn't advocate using this particular pedagogical strategy for all texts, but Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1977) seems to work well as part of an experiential lesson plan because peering into the lives of others through photographs on social media sites is what the overwhelming majority of college students spend their time doing already. The main injunction of my course, “Rhetoric of Photography,” is to put an end to passive scrolling through critical analysis, so I like this lesson plan because it asks students take up a tool that they carry every day, the camera, and to use it deliberately, mindfully, and with a cultural critic as their guide.  

Preparation for this activity begins one week in advance, when I provide a carefully curated 30-page excerpt of the text. While handing out the reading I tell students that in addition to preparing to discuss the excerpt they should also select one passage in particular to write about in a blog post which will be due the following week. I tell them that I’ll give them more specific instructions the following class, but that for now they should sketch out some general thoughts and reactions to the reading. At this point, I also tell them to bring cameras to the next week’s meeting, saying that I’ll reveal what the cameras are going to be used for on the day of the activity. The mysterious call for cameras is useful for cultivating excitement about the upcoming activity.

For Sontag’s particular text, I find a de-centralized atmosphere, in which the students are made to feel like the teacher, to be most useful. To facilitate this environment, I’ll start with a broad question, like, “would you say Sontag is generally a pessimist, or an optimist when it comes to photography?” and we’ll delve into more nuanced questions from there. Once we've all shared our thoughts and students have shared their chosen passages (this is usually a 30 minute conversation), I’ll explain why they brought their cameras. They’re to go wherever they want in the space of 25 minutes, I tell them, and to use whatever strategy they devise, in order to procure a picture of a stranger. At this moment, they usually express some excitement at the open-ended possibilities and begin brainstorming strategies like so many contestants on a game show. Will they ask nicely? Use a zoom lens? Many liked the idea of pretending to be texting on their iPhones while snapping photo surreptitiously. Some form alliances, while others prefer to go it alone. The only caveat, I tell them, is that they must write about the entire experience and relate it back to a chosen passage from On Photography while incorporating what we’ve learned about rhetoric so far. Finally, their meditation is to be uploaded to our class Tumblr.

For obvious reasons, however, an assignment like this also poses numerous challenges to the instructor and the students. A lot can go wrong when you tell 23 college students to photograph strangers and upload them to Tumblr. Will they be respectful? Will they be conscientious? Is the whole process inherently voyeuristic? It’s a difficult position to be in, but according to On Photography, taking photographs is itself a precarious, and at times, an outright violent pursuit. For that reason, I try to do this assignment towards the end of the term so that students have already taken part in guided conversations about the topics of surveillance, voyeurism, and objectification that we find in On Photography. In this way, rather than giving them space to say or do something that becomes a teachable moment (read: a moment in which they might be disrespectful or hurtful to others knowingly or unknowingly), I give them tools to demonstrate their savviness to conversations we’ve already had about ethics, civic discourse, the gaze, body image, gender and sexuality, race, the precarious nature of ethnographic photography, and other subjects. Essentially, I’m inviting them to think further about social norms, culture, and how (or if it’s even possible) to photograph strangers in an ethical way.

When they have finished with their snapshots, they return to the classroom before or at the appointed meet up time with a lot to say. They’re usually eager to talk about their experience and each other’s photos. Depending on the length of the class, I will have them continue the discussion on Sontag in light of their experience (usually for about 20 minutes). The most important thing I’ve found with re-introducing students to the classroom environment is to remind them of where we left off in our discussion of the reading. A technique that I’ve found useful for connecting their experience to the reading is to immediately have them get out their notebooks and review their chosen passage from Sontag, and begin drafting an outline of their blog post (perhaps for 5-10 minutes). After they’ve done that we’re able to return as a group to the discussion in a more focused manner. In the past, when I had a 45 minute summer class, I had the students write their blog posts at home and then share them during the following meeting – I found both methods were equally efficient.

Ultimately, this hands-on approach is appealing to me because it turns what might have been an otherwise inert text into a more deeply impressed memory. When I look back on my time as a student, the lessons that I remember were the ones which I engaged with on a personal level. In particular, this assignment is designed after a photography class that I took with the inspiring Professor John Grzywacz-Gray who would lead his classes in group photo shoots and art critiques which inevitably led to remarkably productive, free-ranging discussions about the personal interests of students in the class. Because civic discourse and photography will remain with students throughout their lives, I hope the discussion that the “Photographing Strangers” activity engendered will give them the tools to continue this conversation after the semester has come to a close.



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