On Photography and Nightcrawler

Aug 12 2021

This post is mainly a compare-and-contrast between essays and a film. Two unqiue mediums, displaced in time, collide on a common philosophical thread. I won’t spoil the movie but I don’t feel bad about spoiling essays. Hah.

I’ve recently watched Nightcrawler, directed by Dan Gilroy, on the recommendation that it depicts an anti-social character accurately. I have to say that it was very entertaining. The protagonist, Louis “Lou” Bloom, invades personal space with camera in hand, ever the nosy journalist. He films the most gruesome and shocking of crimes and accidents, but only those that affect white citizens of middle-upper class. He is simply ruthless and dedicated to his choice of profession.

Shortly after, I discovered an American writer named Susan Sontag, who was mostly active during the 60s and onwards in the Vietnam War era. A collection of her essays about photography as an artistic medium were gathered into a book, aptly titled On Photography. If she were alive today, I’m sure she would say the same things about social media (Sontag died in 2004).

However hazy our awareness of this fantasy, it is named without subtlety whenever we talking about “loading” and “aiming” a camera, about “shooting” a film… The camera/gun does not kill, so the ominous metaphor seems to be all bluff… Still, there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves… Just as the camera is the sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder…

—Susan Sontag, “In Plato’s Cave”

After reading her collection, she brings up a lot of points about the dark side of photography, and what makes Nightcrawler such a good movie is that despite being about film journalism, it hits many of the same notes that Sontag discusses. The act of filming, of recording, of shooting with a camera is naughty and perverse. The rivalry between nightcrawlers who rush to arrive on scene first, how they treat events as property where nothing is sacred, an obsession to freeze the past that descends from photography, is revealed by her explanations.

On Photography #

I. In Plato’s Cave #

Recently, photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing—which means that, like every mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.

Sontag elaborates on how the advent of widespread photography changes how we visualize and perceive the world. We seek authoritative, photographic evidence to anchor our reality in one form of objectivity, and indulge in an artful venture to capture everything possible (invade privacy). The camera is a Poké Ball, and the whole world is an oyster filled with Pokémon.

The title of this essay is a reference to the allegory of the cave, because photos are the shadows that we interpret as reality, as a paltry replacement of substance, a kind of nutra-soylent solution boasting quantity rather than quality. From porn to tourism, photography has desensitized us like an addict to their choice of substance.

Tourists who are workaholics like to take pictures because it makes them feel less guilty about going on vacation. In a lighthearted situation, taking pictures is a way to pass the time and relieve you of guilt. However, photos are just information rendered onto special paper. Cameras can just as easily prove guilt through mugshots, crime scene documentation, and live robbery footage.

If you’ve been granted a choice: use your photography to prove guilt and apprehend a criminal, or use your photography to go viral and make money, which would you choose? Nightcrawler presents such an opportunity to our dear, slimy protagonist.

II. America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly #

In the mansions of pre-democratic culture, someone who gets photographed is a celebrity. In the open fields of American experience… everybody is a celebrity.

—Susan Sontag, “America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly”

This essay is about examining the styles of different photographers and their agendas. For example, Walt Whitman possessed an almost patriotic optimism. He believed in empathy, that photography served to unify humanity. Diane Arbus specialized in capturing the everyday lives of “freaks,” people born with deformities, gays who attended gay bars, housewives languishing in unhappy marriages.

Sontag mentions that photographers with a privileged background, such as Arbus, have an attraction to transgressive subjects. Similarly in the movie Nightcrawler, news director Nina Romina specifies the type of shock factor that garners ratings: “We find our viewers are more interested in urban crime creeping into the suburbs. What that means is a victim or victims, preferably well-off and/or white, injured at the hands of the poor, or a minority.”

As Sontag says, “In photographing dwarfs, you don’t get majesty and beauty. You get dwarfs.”

Sontag also states the difference between writing and photography is that the act of writing is often masochistic, while photography is sadistic: “Still, there is a large difference between the activity of a photographer, which is always willed, and the activity of a writer, which may not be. One has the right to, may feel compelled to, give voice to one’s own pain—which is, in any case, one’s own property. One volunteers to seek out the pain of others.”

Lou Bloom portrays an ASPD tendency to find violence overly fascinating, but Sontag seems to suggest that maybe we all find it fascinating. Anyone who takes pictures is a nuisance at best. What does it say about you when you choose to film a fight, instead of hounding the perpetrator, or bringing the victim to safety?

At the end of the essay, Sontag comments on the American attraction to extreme morality: “… America has been discovered as the quintessential Surrealist country. It is obviously way too easy to say that American is just a freak show… But the American partiality to myths of redemption and damnation remains one of the most energizing, seductive aspects of our national culture.” Themes of redemption and damnation are enthralling. Nightcrawler contained nuggets about climbing the career ladder. The movie’s ending was nonchalant about Lou’s behavior. After the credits rolled, I seriously wondered if our justice system works, or society rewards sociopaths as intended.

Conclusion #

Susan Sontag is an interesting author, adjacent to the Absurdist school of thought. Funnily enough, I think there are more responses to her critiques, than there are her actual writings. I will cover the rest of On Photography in separate posts, as I have one more essay to read and I’ve gotta hunt for materials to cross-reference.


Header photo by Michelangelo Buonarroti from Pexels