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Inside/Out by Abigail Solomon-Godeau

I was unable to locate a hardcopy or online version of Inside/Out, so instead reference a summary of the essay.

The essay is a critique of certain of Sontag’s perspectives expressed in On Photography. Specifically, how certain approaches to photography can objectify people and prevent the viewer empathising with the subject. Sontag conceptualises these approaches with an Inside/Outside model. That is, whether the photographer is inside or belongs to the scenario being photographed, or is outside as a pure observer. She describes the concept as a ‘binary couple’ (or duality) – meaning one or the other (0 or 1, on or off, inside or outside). Sontag applies the concept to Diane Arbus’ photos of social deviants and believes, with the photographer as ‘outsider’, moral boundaries and responsibility towards the subjects are removed. Solomon-Godeau also cites Rosler’s work, which calls outsider photography ‘victim photography’.

Solomon-Godeau does not share the same perspective as Sontag.  She argues that:

  • The duality is far more complex than Sontag suggests, with truth being seen culturally as on the inside and objectivity on the outside.
  • There is a critical view (including Sontag’s) that photography is unable to do anything but show superficial appearances and, if that is true, it is not possible to tell the difference between an insider’s and outsider’s photograph.

After exploring the concept further through application to the work exhibited in Public Information: Desire, Disaster, Document, Solomon-Godeau reaches her conclusion. She questions the validity of Sontag’s binary concept, saying that ‘cinematic looking [outside] cannot logically be distinguished from the more negative concept of cinematic tourism [tourism]’. If there is no logic, then it does not provide a sound basis for criticism. She argues that photography reveals ‘a truth of appearance… and totally escapes the binary of inside/out’.

I am with Solomon-Godeau’s viewpoint. Sontag also seems to make an assumption about Arbus’ intention when making the images – given it is impossible to know what is happening in another’s mind, I also find this illogical. Moreover, I would suggest that a degree of objectification is inevitable in photography – one takes something from life and turns it into a photo (an object). The representation of life through the photo as an object, allows the viewer to examine something or someone as an object. The question then turns to the moral and ethic dimension of photographing certain subjects, which is another discussion altogether.


Solomon-Godeau A (nd). Inside/Out. Summary of the essay as it appeared in Public Information Desire, Disaster, Document (SFMOMA 1994). Available from https://www.safaribooksonline.com/library/view/basic-critical-theory/9780240516523/15_chapter-title-6.html# [last accessed 15.5.15]


O’Hagan S (2011). Diane Arbus: humanist or voyeur? The Guardian online (26 July). Available from:  http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/jul/26/diane-arbus-photography-sideshow [accessed 11.5.15]

Rosler M(1981). In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography).  [online] Available from: http://web.pdx.edu/~vcc/Seminar/Rosler_photo.pdf [accessed 11.5.15]

susansontag.com. Literature was the passport. [online] Available from http://www.susansontag.com/SusanSontag/index.shtml [accessed 11.5.15]


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