The research undertaken for this essay illustrates that the process of looking at and interpreting photographs is problematic. Even without ‘difficult’, charged themes and contexts, we are faced with the problem that the reality that we perceive is unique, with significant variation due not only to the moment in history that we inhabit, and the cultures that we are from, but also different perspectives within our own cultures, between males and females, and, at a personal level, the situations that we have experienced and the images that we have already seen and interpreted. Interpretation is a personal exercise, which complicates both the production and consumption of imagery.
Photographs can be oppressive, in forming, strengthening, and maintaining power structures. They aid us in understanding who we are but the reality of how we think and act, the way we treat others, and the unconscious processes that determine how we react (or choose not to react) to events and each other, can be unwelcome revelations.
With regards to images depicting female sexuality, we have seen how women in particular are prone to being sexualised and objectified, both for aesthetic enjoyment and as part of advertising and promotional campaigns. We have also seen how photographic images can serve as gratuitous and grotesque trophies and mementoes, in events that seem to be played out for the camera itself. However, we have also seen how photographic images can be used to pass critique, and to highlight injustices and social imbalances. Photographs of atrocities can be utilised as trophies, but they can also remind us why we find these atrocities, and these ways of seeing, so intolerable.
There now exists a vast repository of images that make it harder to maintain this kind of moral defectiveness. Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing—may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget.
Sontag, 2004, p.102.