The Tyranny of the Camera

Slavoj Žižek meets Suzan Sontag when discussing the nature of Photographed Experience

Man in Paris

A photo of a young man on his first trip to Paris. Just as any person passing by a place so widely-known and lovely, he feels compelled to take a picture of himself in that place. After all, who comes to Paris and doesn't capture themselves on camera in front of the Eiffel Tower?
But now, with the sacrifice of slightly stiff legs of his friend who had to spend over twenty minutes crouching trying to catch the best perspective possible, the man has a photographed experience, a photo of himself enjoying the Paris cityscape, which he can share with his friends (and enemies!) as a proof that the experience has indeed taken place.

The fact of there needing to be a photographed proof of experience is far more important than it might seem to be. The photo serves as the ultimate way to fix an event or an emotion, but without it, is there a way to say without a doubt: "Yes, I did have helluva time, I was happy back then!"? How can you be sure that it's not just your brain retrospectively making up an impression you never had? "It seems positively unnatural to travel for pleasure without taking a camera along", says Suzanne Sontag in her On Photography, and she has a point, because without the photograph, there is no pleasure. You may be contemplating a beautiful landscape, but please make sure that you take a photo of it, or else it'll be thrown into oblivion! It might sound like an exaggeration, but I'd call it tyranny of the camera that very often compels you to photographically fix a moment in time and space.

That "fixing of the moment" happens because, if we speak in Peircean semiotic terms, a photo is not just an icon (i.e. something that resembles the signified — the depicted object(s)), but rather an index (i.e. something that is caused by the signified; the photographed reality causes what you see on the image because it catches photons of light reflected from real object and fixes them on the camera matrix). Though, of course, photo editing techniques put this into doubt nowadays, a photograph is still seen as having direct causality with the real world, and thus can certify the existence of certain real things, emotions, and impressions.

But if we take a closer look at the nature of photography, we may see that it is, on the one hand, a way of immortalising the otherwise fleeting experience by fixing it on a hard medium, but, on the other, it may serve to be a substitute for the experience itself, when taking a photo that fixes a pretended experience is more important than having the experience in the first place.
Look at a random photo of the kind we're talking about, like the one above. Does the person on the photo genuinely experience what you see on his face? Probably not, he's just posing to look happy on the photo. Maybe he'll go jump off from the pont Mirabeau after this, you never know, because, paradoxically, the photo can also be used to hide the genuine experience and substitute it with a socially positive image, like the one above. The already mentioned Suzan Sontag spoke on this paradox and said that "[a] way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it—by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir."

So it looks like the photograph can serve as a substitute for experience, while manifesting itself as a proof of experience. This correlates with Slavoj Žižek idea of the interpassive subject (which derives, in turn, from one of Jacques Lacan's seminars). According to it, in the world there are certain objects or people that can experience an emotion instead of someone else. An example of this are the weepers who mourn at funerals instead of the deceased person's relatives. Another example is the background laughter in TV comedies that kind of experiences joy instead of the viewers themselves. The interpassive subjects exist because there are certain rules that must be followed in a society, like mourning at funerals or laughing when watching comedies, but those rules can be followed by basically anything or anyone, not just by the people who are most obviously supposed to follow them (relatives and viewers, in our case). And it works in the same manner with the photograph, it is also a kind of an interpassive subject that can "experience", fix an emotion or an impression, without anyone necessarily having to feel that emotion or have that impression personally, except for the photograph itself. This way, a photograph can rob you of an emotion without your realisation of having been robbed.

So when you're on your next trip and have a sudden urge to take a photo, ask yourself: is it me, or is it the camera that wants it?

(*the photo used in the essay is AI-generated, so as not to hurt any Paris flaneur’s feelings)