Ever since I watched Wonder Woman, I’ve wanted to blog about it.
I loved the film and its approach to photography, but until today I haven’t been able to articulate why. It was re-reading Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others that it struck me. In her famous book, Sontag writes:
“Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand. Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us.” (p. 89)
Well, this is quite an statement for someone who wrote two books on photography. What does Sontag mean by “understand”? And by “photographs’?
She writes “photographs”, but she probably means “photographic images”. In that case, I agree with her. Photographic images do not provide much information regarding the event represented. We can’t understand an event by just looking at how it was captured by a camera for a very brief period of time, and later processed into a positive print. Fair enough.
But this is a very, very, VERY limited approach to photography. Photographs are not, or not only, photographic images. Photographs are visual objects, which (usually, often, definitely not always) display an image. Photographs are quite complex objects, and photography involves quite complex practices. Then, why should we reduce photographs to their unstable images? Photographic practices can make us understand.
Let’s take the example of Wonder Woman. I know, Wonder Woman is not a historically accurate film (if only…!). But the moments when photography features in the film are quite good representations of the daily presence of photography during the war and today. They perfectly show the kind of things we can actually understand through photography.
The film starts and ends with a photograph. Diane is doing work in the archives of the Musée du Louvre (as one does), and receives a briefcase with a glass plate. The black and white image shows her and her four friends. It is upon receiving the glass plate that Diane tells the story of how she basically saved the world. We don’t understand the First World War by looking at this image. Following Sontag, the image only works as a spark, inducing memories and a narrative through which the spectator can understand what happened.
But are talking about the image or about the photograph/glass plate?
Later in the film, we see the moment when the photograph was taken. After the first victory of the team, the photographer of the village takes the photo of the group. The film spends some time showing everything around the image: the camera, the group posing, the rest of the people of the village watching them. The scene is about doing photography, not about the particular image and what it can reveal. That this moment is integrated into the narrative (Diane’s own narrative) demonstrates that the image not only sparks the memory of the war, but also the memory of how the photograph was taken. The act of taking the photograph was important in itself. Through this scene, we can understand how and why sometimes we value photographs. The image is only the excuse to remember the moment when it was taken, and what that moment means to us.
My favorite scene was, however, towards the end. When the war is over (spoiler altert?), one monument is covered by photographs, typically of the dead. I cried so much at this point. This is a very poignant scene, but also a very informative one. Photographs helps us to understand rituals of collective and individual mourning. This scene shows how private photographs circulated through the public sphere, acquired new meanings (from being a personal portrait to become a symbol of heroism and patriotism) and became objects through which mourning war articulated.
Of course we can understand the world through photography, because photography makes our world. We just need to stop obsessing about what is in the image, to look at what we do with photographs -and what photographs do to us.