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John Palcewski's Journal

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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?

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Thanks, but I've never liked that shot for some reason. Maybe it's because I didn't like HER.

She just took her writings seriously, that's all. Perhaps a bit too seriously. From On Photograhy: "to photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed", "photographs, which package the world, seem to invite packaging", "there is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera"...

If she really believed this, it would explain her reaction, right ?

Also, if we make a (fairly strong) assumption, that she was consistent, it should have been perfectly fine from her point of view that you made exactly one photo :-)

I confess, I really like this shot :-)

Thanks for your comments. Interesting, but after all this time I don't recall those quotes from "On Photography," and I'm thinking maybe her "...aggression implicit in every use of the camera" might have reminded me then (or maybe only just now) of how her compatriot Andrea Dworkin characterized the sexual act, or I should say ALL sexual acts. I guess I ought to give Sontag's book another look. And see how my reaction now compares to my reaction back then...

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