Literary Interpretation and Analysis of Susan Sontag's Book, On Photography, Chapter 1: "In Plato's Cave"

Updated on February 7, 2012

A Bit of Background

This is an essay, if you will, of my interpretation of the first chapter ("In Plato's Cave") of Susan Sontag's 1977 book, On Photography. For those of you who do not know who Susan Sontag (1933- 2004) was, she was an active author, intellectual, playwright, well-known cultural figure, and humanitarian. Many of her insights are interesting and/or provocative. She was an "outside-the-box" thinker and thought deeply about culture and values.

In On Photography, Sontag named her first essay "In Plato's Cave" in reflection of the allegory of the same name by Plato. Basically Sontag is arguing a point that photography is a sort of false way of relating to the world because pictures can be so flawed, in essence, falsely interpreted. Sontag relates this to Plato's allegory in which prisoner's in a cave see shadows of objects cast on the wall due to a fire, in effect, seeing false images of reality. To Sontag, photos are just that: false images of reality that one cannot absolutely deduce anything from. I, on the other hand, have more to say about photos and in certain ways, cannot fully agree with what Sontag presents.

Sontag's View

The essay “In Plato's Cave” by Susan Sontag condemns photography and elaborates upon the meaning of photography as a sort of warning. In explaining what photography means, Sontag makes important observations that clarify caution when viewing photographs due to alterations or lack of information about what was actually happening while photographs were taken and photography’s powerful influence on society due to this. The psychological aspect of photography Sontag reveals is menacing, showing the hidden desires and motivations behind the action of taking photos. Sontag's essay overall reveals views on how photography has grimly affected society foreshadowing the consequences of such desperate reliance on photos. Even so, this reliance on photos has useful purpose in some instances, so Sontag may have crossed the line and “blew it out of proportion”. Of course photos cannot be trusted entirely, but this is dependent on the viewer’s judgment and supporting information.

"Plato's Cave", the False Image
"Plato's Cave", the False Image | Source

The Cost of Images

A prime example of one of Sontag's warnings about photos is, “Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato's Cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth.” (Sontag 3). Here, Sontag claims that like the Plato's Cave allegory, when anyone looks at a photograph it is only an image of the truth, so what they see is not always entirely true without explanation. In the Plato's Cave story, the shadows cast upon the wall that the trapped prisoners see are much different than the real objects in front of the fire (Cohen). The allegory shows that the prisoners in the cave only see an image of reality which is the shadow, but never the real objects behind them. Sontag compares the allegory of these shadows to photos and reality, saying that photos are like shadows: they are not real. Also, photos can be doctored: scale changes, cropping, retouching, aging, and can be bought and sold (Sontag 4). This example reveals the falseness of photos: that they can only be as true as anyone thinks, even if they are not. Even if someone were to believe a photo's purpose or appearance to be entirely true, it could still, however, be completely false.

Sontag insists is that the industrialization of camera technology has democratized society's experiences into images that “sleek” pocket cameras allow anyone to snap (Sontag 7). She is implying that because anyone can take pictures, society is overrun by photography. More of an impact on the idea of photography's hold on society is Sontag's view that the mentality which looks at the world through eyes framing potential photographic subjects everywhere had spread rapidly with increasing technological advances of the camera since the mid-1800's (Sontag 7). The saddest and most horrible hold photography has on society Sontag explained is when people have a choice to save a life or to take a photo, they choose the photo (Sontag 11). This is due to the importance of recording events in modern society, but I also believe that this means something more: that when people choose the photo, they choose more, pathetically, “exciting” news. Sontag also warns, the act of taking a picture is “predatory”, because once a photo is taken it can be used against anyone in a repulsive way, whether the victim is aware of it or not (Sontag 14). And that is the disturbing part, a picture of anyone can be photo shopped in with a terrible picture, tacked on a wall for some creep to throw darts at, or any other horrible, embarrassing usage of it.

Mental Pocket Book

Sontag offers another seemingly elusive influence of photography on society as she states, “…the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads-as an anthology of images.” (Sontag 3). Here, Sontag explains that people tend to take a photo and save the information or appearance of that photo in their mind in order to relate to in real life. In a way, she is concluding that perhaps people think of photos as a window into how the real world is in actuality, or even save these images, especially of people, to stereotype people and easily organize how reality is in our world of mind-boggling amounts of information. People want to save these images in their heads in order to sort information to relate to how the world is. The idea of people automatically saving photographic information in their heads may appear gullible, but the motivation of people relying on photos to look into how the world really is, is the need for knowledge in order to survive. Nobody can survive if they go through life never trusting anything: what they see, read, hear, or feel. At this end of the spectrum, deeming a photo completely perfidious would show as ridiculous. Sontag merely tends to examples in which photography influences people in situations where people are faulty in their judgment. The idea Sontag features of photos as untrustworthy I partially disagree with, because it is more a matter of the judgment or instinct of a person to test something’s credibility, as with anything else in the world, and not just that only photos cannot be trusted.

Society's Values to Borderline Psychosis

The psychological effects photography has on a person’s mind, for example, is vast. Sontag reveals, “It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.” (Sontag 8). Photography is a social rite, in that cameras go with family life: they keep the accomplishments of family members for reminiscence (Sontag 8). Photography has been hugely implemented into families and all institutions, as Sontag points out, “…not turning up for one’s graduation picture is a sign of adolescent rebellion.” (Sontag 8). In many situations, taking photos is expected, or else one is looked down upon. To assuage anxiety, people, especially tourists, snap pictures to keep as memoirs, and their motivation can even be to, as people from cultures with high work ethics have, is to mimic working, because they feel a need to continue working to avoid feeling indolent. (Sontag 9-10).

In addition, Sontag explores the dark side of people’s motivations behind photography. She explains, “The camera doesn’t rape, or even possess, though it may intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and, at the farthest reach of the metaphor, assassinate- all activities that, unlike the sexual push and shove, can be conducted from a distance, and with some detachment.” (Sontag 13). Sontag is saying that even though to take a picture one must have distance, it still inflates hidden desires, ones that are either sexual or violent. She also referred to the movie, “Peeping Tom”, in which a psychopath kills women with a weapon cloaked inside his camera (Sontag 13). This subconscious desire, Sontag adds, could be evident when people speak of “loading” or “aiming” a camera. (Sontag 14).

Camera Shot
Camera Shot | Source

Sontag's Cynicism Crosses the Line

Finally, Sontag's entire sardonic aim at what photography means is, she states, “The knowledge gained through still photographs will always be some sort of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist. It will always be a knowledge at bargain prices- a semblance of knowledge, a semblance of wisdom: as the act of taking pictures is a semblance of appropriation, a semblance of rape.” (Sontag 24). Overall, photos may exist only as a world of images, nothing more: shadows of reality and the truth, but more critical judgment may show otherwise. Seeing this doubt in light of what Sontag claims shows that photography’s hold on society may be great, unfortunately in a melancholic way, but Sontag misses the point of how photography is advantageous. Even though she speaks of what photos mean, she remains biased in her own views of the disadvantages. Yes, be wary of the falseness of photos, but also think of one’s own judgment. Perhaps a “semblance” is all one needs in order to make sense of this hectic earth. Photos are the world’s “cheat sheets” for life’s test.


Cohen, Marc. "The Allegory of the Cave.” University of Washington,

16 Aug. 2007 Web. 20 Jan. 2010.

Susan Sontag Foundation. "Literature was the Passport." Estate of Susan Sontag,

2010 Web. 01 Feb. 2012.

Sontag, Susan. “In Plato’s Cave.” On Photography. New York, Picador, 1977. Print.

Can We Trust Photos? You Decide.


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