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One Shot

Quite a few years ago I got an assignment to take pictures of Susan Sontag at Lafayette College, in Easton, Pennsylvania. Before Sontag arrived, a PR woman spotted me and came over. “Ms. Sontag does not wish to be photographed while she is giving her lecture,” the stern woman said. “So please wait until she has finished.”

Being a pro-feminist AND a gentleman, I nodded. So I sat in the front row and listened to Sontag deliver a talk that I found absolutely incomprehensible. As incomprehensible as her book, “On Photography.”

When Sontag concluded, she looked at me, the only photographer in the room. “You have exactly one minute to take your pictures,” she said in a wholly unfriendly way.

Her unexpected rudeness threw me off balance. I felt self-conscious because the eyes of the audience were suddenly on me. As a photojournalist I avoid public interaction with my subjects so as to be the objective observer, not the observed.

I raised my Nikon, took a single shot, then turned and walked out.

It’s hardly flattering, as you can see.

Now, on reflection many years later I see my behavior as passive aggressive, perhaps even unprofessional. I walked out after a single shot because I wanted to retaliate with my own kind of condescension. Was my act sexist? What would you have done in this circumstance?

its Susan Sontag!
she was beautyful....
but always a sadness in her eyes

Quite honestly, I would most likely have done exactly the same as you, John. I don't care how famous the person is, they have no right to treat someone who is just there to do their own job in such a manner as she did you. I don't even know who she is, I feel uneducated.. lol. I will have to go and google her now :p

Google makes instant experts of us all!

I think "On photography" is worth of struggling with it. It could've even helped you to understand the meaning of the episode.

I've been reading James Joyce's Ulysses for 30 years, and THAT is a work worth the effort. "On Photography" is largely incomprehensible because it's written like a lot of academic textbooks. And too many textbooks contain gibberish that is passed off as wisdom, and nobody has the courage to call it what it really is: bad writing. Sontag was a vastly intelligent and talented woman, and she surely could have made herself clear, if she wished. But she didn't.

To be clear is not the ultimate virtue per se. And wisdom is not that easily transfarable or bestowed. If it is, it is worth nothing.

I would not discuss your personal evaluation of this particular book, it'd be like discussion of your personal evaluation of my nose's shape. What I say is: you could've found a right response to her "assault" at you. Because it is more than a peevishness; it is, to me, an invitation to the roleplaying along the lines that are drawn in the book.

but perhaps you gave people the impression that you always work like that!

I couldn't for the life of me see how it could be sexist until I saw your remark above about what you'd have done to a man. Still, as its unclear as to what assumptions (about people, about women) underlie your action, Im not able to say...

as for what I'd have done, I know myself too well to claim I'd have done anything except blink at her with surprise and ask why (probably losing the chance to take any photograph at all). At least you got this interesting image.

Thanks for your interesting comments. My assumptions about women are that they've been screwed over by selfish men way too long, and if along the way I can screw them less (or perhaps more, provided they want me to!) things can improve. As for men, well, it's kind of like a good old fashioned bar brawl. Yes, it's wrong to do damage to flesh and property. But every now and again it's good to just leap in there, fists swinging, giving as good as you get. Hmmmm. Maybe that's even more sexist...one kind of behavior for women, another for men. Oh, well.

Hmm, so your assumption is that women would prefer you to be, in your words, 'passive aggressive' or emotionally confrontational rather than physically confrontational, and that men don't deserve your consideration because they haven't been screwed over, so you can release tension on them. I'm not so sure that this is sexist exactly (except perhaps against men) but I'm also not sure that it works at an individual level! Still, you're a pretty thoughtful person, so I'd guess that mostly your actions reflect that.

I think you did the right thing. You gave her exactly what she asked for, even if it wasn't necessarily what she wanted.

Thanks. But only God knows what she wanted.

The Charlie Rose Show

Last night, as I was switching channels on my TV remote, they were showing a re-run of an interview of Susan Sontag on The Charlie Rose Show from May 2000.

I've never seen Sontag speak publicly before and she really comes across as very arrogant. She has some very interesting nervous tics she performs while speaking on camera. She plays with her hair often, does some sorta tongue movement on her outer lip, etc. She seemed very nervous during this interview. Seems odd for a woman that did public speaking her whole life, doesn't it?

Sontag's also not very easy on the eyes. (But you knew that already). I couldn't even listen to the hogwash she was blabbing about. After hearing your experience with her years back, you tainted me. I flipped the remote to the next channel and got rid of her ugly face.


Re: The Charlie Rose Show

I'm pro-feminist for obvious reasons, but I'm so totally turned off by intellectuals who can't or won't express themselves in clear, coherent language. Just the other day I sat through a half-hour BBC interview with Germaine Greer. Now, Greer's an enormously bright woman, and so was the probing BBC reporter, but halfway through it I realized that Greer was very nearly incoherent. She was spouting gibberish. But yet there was that bright interviewer, nodding, as if she understood. Early in my journalistic career I saw this phenomenon of a reporter pretending to understand nonsense, and to test my assumption I actually typed out a transcript of a tape I made of the interview. Allowing for the looseness of spoken language, it indeed WAS gibberish. The thing is, too many times a reporter just doesn't trust him or herself enough to say, simply, "I don't understand what you're saying. Please explain."

Re: The Charlie Rose Show

Doesn't trust him/herself or is too embarrassed to ask questions b/c they have no idea what they are talking about?

But then you get the reporter-robots that have the wires in their ears. The words they are speaking aren't even coming out of their own brains. It's someone behind the scenes that makes them actually tick.

Sontag was also speaking gibberish in the Charlie Rose interview. I'm telling you, I was watching her with my own two eyes and ears and I cannot even tell you what she was talking about.