ON PHOTOGRAPHY: Reflection #1 by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.


 by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.

“The camera makes reality atomic,  manageable and opaque….denies interconnectness, continuity, but confers on each moment the character of a mystery.”–Susan Sontag



Commenting on Susan Sontag’s ON PHOTOGRAPHY (in his book ABOUT LOOKING, 1980), John Berger contends that film and photography have been used by capitalism/imperialism to legitimate things as they are, the status quo, as immediately valid and truthful. A picture is equivalent to a thousand words; you see the reality as it is. “And that’s the way the world is,” as so many TV reports/commentators repeat everyday.  Is that the world really what you see? Is seeing believing?


Our daily lives sometimes may refute the immediate testimony of photographs and filmic images.  However, the “false consciousness” that prevail in bourgeois and neocolonized societies have transformed daily lives into simulacra or mimicry of the painful experiences of ordinary people. We have artificial needs and desires cultivated by mass media,  advertising, publicity.Our dreams and hopes are often constructed on TV images, film scenarios, and photos in megamalls and FACEBOOk!


Photos offer only appearances deprived of their social and political contexts. The images found in snapshots are torn away from their place in the narrative of daily life. They are frozen, fetishized, given the aura that makes them appear sacred, immutable, normal. That has been the function of photography and film employed in industrial capitalisti societies and their colonial/neocolonized dependencies. You don’t need to read Roland Barthes, Slavoj Zizek, or Sontag, for that matter.


How to subvert this usage that promotes exploitation, destruction of the environment, permanent wastage of life and nature? Berger suggests that we incorporate photos into social and political memory. Following Brecht’s instructions for the epic theater, Berger urges that we situate  the photograph so that it “acquires something of the surprising conclusiveness of that which was and is.” In other words, the radical artist in film and photography should show “the flow of events, …permitting the spectator /To experiencve this Now on many levels, coming from Previously and /Merging into Afterwards, also having much else Now /Alongside it” (Brecht’s instructions to theater workers). “Always historicize,”  Jameson once intoned. But who can do this today when you are surfing the Internet, YOUTUBE, and singing Whitney Houston’s “I will always love you….”???


I offer one photo that viewers should situate in narrated time. It can be a text for experimental metacommentary, as Jameson advised. This narrated time, to quote Berger again, “becomes historic time when it is assumed by social memory and social action.” This is a tall order, but I offer some cues and hints so that “a radial system” (antithetical to the auratified time of shopping, routine bureaucratic work, the tautology of specator sports and watching the Corona impeachment farce, Pacquiao’s antics, barkada hijinks, TV trivia, etc. etc.) can be constructed around the the image so that–in Berger’s words–“it may be seen in terms which are simultaneously personal, political, economic,  dramatic, everyday and historic.” Connect the instant with what came before, and what will come after. Speculate, if possible: Where will this blind prisoner/ex-prisoner go? What will happen to him? How about the others surrounding him before, now, and after?


Walter Benjamin, the theoreticians of ostranenie and surrealist poetics, Russian futurists, etc. have proposed the maxim of “making strange” what we have been socialized to accept as normal, fixed, customary, acceptable, and fated. Deconstruct the illusion, destroy the mirage and hallucinations of quotidian life. Here is a blind man at the center of the photo, taken in 2011 at the Palawan model “penal colony,” among Filipino-American tourists who are following the usual itinerary–from the crocodile farm of Puerto Princesa, to the faux utopia of Dos Palmas, and finally to the underground river and caverns off the Palawan coast.  If we follow him, where will he lead us to?


Meanwhile, do we see the Abu Sayyaf pirates around the corner? Or the killing of environmentalists and other activists in Palawan itself?  How exemplary was the penal colony established by the American colonial administration (next to the Culion Leper colony) and perpetuated up to now?  This picture speaks volumes, perhaps, only if you–the viewer, spectator, Baudelaire’s mon lecteur–can supply the narrative context from which meaning and signification can emerge. What Charles Sanders Peirce called the “interpretant” in the triadic theory of signs (sign/semiotic object/interpretant) can only be conceivable if the mind-forged manacles can be exploded by a process of collective action.  Who can explode these manacles? Makibaka, huwag matakot?



About philcsc

E.SAN JUAN, Jr. directs the Philippines Cultural Studies Center, Washington DC, USA and lectures at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Manila, Philippines.
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