On snapshot photography: Rethinking photographic power in public and private spheres


Zuromskis, Catherine. ‘On snapshot photography: Rethinking photographic power in public and private spheres’ Photography: Theoretical Snapshots (Oxon: Routledge, 2009) p.49-62


[discusses Sontag’s essay ‘Regarding the torture of others…’

As more and more photographs are taken and consumed, Sontag argues, the world is atomized into a series of disconnected images and anecdotes.

The article, in my view, drew much-needed attention not to the acts portrayed in the Abu Graib photos per se, but to the photographs themselves and the very fact of their existence in our image-saturated culture.


[discusses Sontag’s negative view of photography]


To be sure, this image constitutes an act of aggression, but it is also distinct from many of the public modes in which photographs of atrocity are often disseminated – the artistic and journalistic war photographs, for example, that form the basis for Sontag’s investigation in Regarding the Pain of Others.

What struck me immediately upon seeing the Abu Ghraib photographs […] was that despite the overt violence of the subject, the visual style of the photograph most resembled that of a common snapshot.

And it is for me the snapshot quality of this image that makes the scene all the more horrifying: by combining the unmitigated violence of the actions depicted with this unsettlingly familiar photographic rhetoric of the snapshot, the image seems to posit torture as the norm, a banal and unremarkable part of everyday life.

I call attention to this fact because the snapshot genre has always seemed a pregnant omission in Sontag’s writings on photography.

Reading every photographic act as one of aggression and detachment, Sontag not only essentializes the medium, ignoring the mutability of power in different genres and individual photographic instances, but she also disregards social constructions of power that organise photographic meaning on a grand scale.

My aim, then, is not to contradict Sontag’s assertion that power is always embedded in the rhetoric of the photograph, but to articulate power differently, as a struggle between discrete and private photographic acts and the publicly-constructed ideology of photographic norms.


[defines snapshot]
The subject (here the familiar parent and child pairing) generally has considerable personal or emotional significance for the photographer (in this case my mother), and the photographer maintains this emotional emphasis on the subject by circulating the image within a distinctly private, often familial sphere of consumption.

[…]aesthetic concerns are ultimately secondary, as long as the snapshot fulfils its basic indexical function. Indeed snapshots often seem designed to be as unremarkable as possible.

The identifiable visual rhetoric of the genre is one of utterly banal visual conventions: frontal posing, central framing, demonstrative gestures of affection, and the all-important smile. But what these conventions lack in originality they more than make up for in affective function; in combination with the emotionally significant subject and a sphere of eager and intimate consumption, these conventions above all others testify to the intimacy and complicity of the familial bond.


By focussing on the ritual of snapshooting, Sontag accounts for one of the most striking aspects of snapshot photography: the way that, from one individual to the next, private snapshots look remarkably the same.

Sontag also perceptively notes that photography gives a form of agency to the individual with the camera, a means of signifying a connection to people, places or events (even if that connection ultimately distances as well).

Where I think she missteps, however,  is in collapsing the ritual conformity and the individual agency of snapshot production and consumption into one impulse, as if to imply that popular photography coalesces organically into ritual practice.

In contrast, what strikes me as interesting about the snapshot, and that which makes it such a provocative object of study, are the instances where these two agendas refuse one another, playing out the struggle between cultural norms and individual desires through the rhetoric of the image.

Sontag emphasizes the ritual function of the snapshot in certifying familial bonds, but because of her ontological approach, she is far more interested in the qualities she can locate in the medium itself than in the social, cultural, and political influences that construct its use. But images like this testify to the way that ritual photographic culture is externally contructed.

Historical evidence suggests that many of the aspects of snapshot culture we consider natural or inherent are, in fact, socially and commercially manufactured.


Only after Kodak began to advertise snapshot cameras as a means of documenting family life and emotional relations in the the domestic sphere did snapshot photography gain such a poignant and important role in the chronicling of sentimental family histories.

This visual ideal [Kodak advertisement] is at once unattainable and, in a way, invisible.

On the one hand, the ideal snapshot is deliberately distinct from the prevalence of ‘real’ imperfect images […]

However, as dominant as this ideal is, it is also internalized, hegemonic. Emphasizing visual simplicity and the fundamental emotional bonds between photographer and subject, snapshot photography is a mode of image making that is constructed precisely to seem unconstructed, manufactured to be read as spontaneous.

What I want to posit then, in contrast to Sontag’s model of the photographer, driven by a compulsive need to appropriate ritualistically  and colonise the world around her through her lens, is an external, regulating discourse of snapshot meaning, one that advances commercial and moral-political agendas, but also one that conceals itself within the notion of a naive, unstudied, and instinctual mode of photographic production.

Furthermore, insofar as she reads the conventions of photographic practice as essential to the medium itself, Sontag not only ignore the hegemonic forces invested in photographic meaning, she also reinforces them.


While snapshot photography operates within a highly normative structure, this structure is inhabited by a collection of singular, disparate photographic acts.

These acts – polymorphous, individual, and rooted in personal, even clandestine desires – contradict the social and cultural conventions of snapshooting in subtle but important ways.

Thus, while snapshots draw much of their emotional cachet from being photographic – and therefore, it is assumed, unfailingly truthful – traces of the past, the image itself often offers a distinctly rosier and inaccurate version of the events portrayed.

[On a snapshot of friends] This image then represents a fantasy of substantive bonds between the subjects and a speculative claim on possible future intimacies.


The snapshot depends upon the sharing of photographic power, a collaboration between the photographer who knows how to frame the image and trip the shutter, and the sitter who knows how to pose, smile and hold still so that her image will deserve revisiting later.

On the individual level, then, the snapshot radically decentres the simple binary of photographer/self versus subject/other, resituating the photographic act as a connective or dialogic gesture that manifests agency on both sides of the lens.


And I suggest, in contrast to Sontag’s claim that the vents at Abu Graib were ‘designed to be photographed’, that photography is not so much culpable of the atrocities it represents as a window onto pervasive ideologies (in this case of racism and violence) that emanate unconsciously from intimate acts. As such the revelatory nature of the medium is equally capable of aiding and undermining such ideologies.

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