Susan Sontag & Plato’s Cave

The classic allegory of Plato’s cave is often used to illustrate the point that perception is everything. In one form or another, humans live in a cave of their own making; our ignorance leaves us in the dark.

In Sontag’s piece, she likens our perception of photography as “truth” to the prisoners viewing the shadows on the wall as reality. If we look at modern advertising, for example, one would think that all women are thin and beautiful, with flawless skin. This, as we all know, is far from the truth. Even the models themselves often only bear passing resemblance to their own images in the media: pores are airbrushed, thighs are thinned, etc. Light and shadow are manipulated to present an idealized image of the real thing.

In other cases, such as photojournalism, the images are typically not as manipulated. However, these photographs are still a mere representation of the subject and not the subject itself. A photograph of the Eiffel Tower is still just that: a two-dimensional photograph. It is not the actual tower itself.

It is important that viewers recognize the distinction in this era of the omnipresent camera phone. In the age of instagram, people can (and do) take pictures of their “life” that actually don’t represent reality whatsoever. An “artist” named Amalia Ulman turned her instagram account into performance art. She snuck into luxury hotels to take selfies and bought and returned clothing for her work.

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