Why Photographs?

To begin with, an apology. I have, quite obviously, already broken my New Year’s resolution. Surprise, surprise. My excuse? A rather sad one: I’ve taken it upon myself to attempt an extra grad-level course this semester, in addition to some other extra-curricular activities. It doesn’t sound like much, but, well, my office-mates may attest otherwise based on some mild panic attacks I’ve already had. 

Anyhoo, one of the courses I’m taking this semester is Photography and Public History, which is already proving quite worth  taking! Part of the course involves blogging, so perhaps this will keep me more on track with this blog. 

One of the readings for the first week of class was an excerpt from Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1977). Curiously, at the end of the book is an appendices of quotes. My favourite was a rather lengthy one from Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (1951).

“Why do people keep photographs?”

Why indeed? Hastings struggles with the question, but eventually comes up with an answer Poirot is happy with.

Poirot pounced on the words.

“Exactly. It reminds them. Now again we ask – why?…”

In true Poirot-fashion, the little egg-shaped Belgian goes on to answer his own question. The first reason is Vanity, the second, Sentiment.

“And there is possibly a third category. Not vanity, not sentiment, not love – perhaps hate – what do you say?”


“Yes. To keep a desire for revenge alive. Someone who has injured you – you might keep a photograph to remind you, might you not?”

To be quite honest, I picked this quote because I love Agatha Christie. Not just because she writes fabulous brain-teasers, but also because her stories and books are a lot like time-capsules, representative of a certain moment of British history – one in which the colonial world is quite often tangibly present. 

But what about Sontag’s reason? Why would she include this quote in her book, what was the logic behind placing this excerpt among the thoughts of photographers, theorists, and critics?

Generally speaking, when we think of photographs, our immediate impulse is to think of pleasant things. I am not thinking of people who take photographs for a living, mind you – for neither was Poirot. I’m thinking of your every day Mary Joe or Billy Bob who will whip out a camera to get a picture of something silly, or happy, or what have you. 

Those images though, at least in Poirot’s deductions, can become something quite different. There is nothing quite so powerful as an image, I would argue. And a photograph of a place or a face connected with a personal injury which one has reason to seek revenge for is a potent reminder of the task at hand. As a material object, a photograph is easy to hang on to. As a representation, it is more than, well, a representation. It is both what it represents, and its representation. It is the injury, and the reminder of it.


And that is what makes the photograph so powerful, so mysterious, and so fascinating. Its layered nature – material object, representation, and the referent itself – in addition to, of course, everything that those things connote culturally, socially, and personally – that makes them worth studying. 


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