“Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still revealing, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth. But being educated by photographs is not like being educated by older images.”
That’s the beginning of Susan Sontag’s ‘In Plato’s Cave’ essay from her ‘On Photography’ book, the profound and illuminating study of the photographic images. Now, why does Sontag use the Plato’s allegory in the essay dedicated to the analysis of photography in the culture of everyday life? Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and Sontag’s essay on the meaning of ‘image of the truth’ both confront us with the problem of interpretation – interpretation of the world around us. Cave people from Plato’s allegory lived like prisoners in the world of substitutes: the firelight for the sunlight, shadows for real objects. But when one of them was freed and saw the sun, the light hurt his eyes and made him suffer. Eventually he was able to see the real world. When he returned to the cave to bring his fellow cave dwellers out, he couldn’t see in the dark anymore, so prisoners thought he was blind and decided to never go out of the cave.
For us today, photographs become an ethic of seeing. They teach us how and what to observe in the world. But maybe photography help us to disguise the fact that we do not understand the reality? While photographs really are experience captured, they are also the weapon of idealization, a part of particular visual culture. Maybe we desperately need to have our reality confirmed by photographs just to make sure we understand it right. Or maybe, just like Plato’s cave prisoners, we don’t want to see the reality so bad that we construct our own — with our photos, somehow turning experience itself into a way of seeing.