A possession of space: Susan Sontag on why tourists take so many pictures

Susan Sontag meets two Ethiopian tourists in Italy

The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel.

Photographs help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure. Thus, photography develops in tandem with one of the most characteristic of modern activities: tourism.

For the first time in history, large numbers of people regularly travel out of their habitual environments for short periods of time. And it seems positively unnatural to travel for pleasure without taking a camera along.

Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on.

Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had.

A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it – by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir.

The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic – Germans, Japanese, and Americans.

Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures.

— Words by Susan Sontag / Photos by Mattia Lerario