“PHOTOGRAPHS ARE A way of imprisoning reality.” That’s an oft-quoted bit from On Photography, the influential 1977 essay collection by Susan Sontag. She argued that photography is a way of “refusing” to absorb new environments and experiences “by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir.” Also: “Essentially, the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.”
On and on Sontag went, describing how the innocent-seeming act of snapping pictures degrades what’s photographed and detaches us from the world. And this was three decades before phonecams transformed photography from “widely practiced amusement,” as Sontag put it, to omnipresent, mindless tic.
Now here you are, on the cusp of carrying that intrusive, modern habit into maybe the last bastion of unabashed, no-tech conservatism in American life, the one day when everyone agrees that even the tiniest traditions—whether the stuffing should go inside the bird, who sits at which table—matter intensely and must remain inviolate and be suffered through together; when people will even graciously take a spoonful or two of that weird yam thing that Great-Aunt Katie makes, just because she’s made it every year for as long as everyone can remember and it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without it.
We’ve all seen how taking pictures in situations like these can feel obnoxious and petty and solipsistic, in exactly that Sontagian way. Then again, can’t taking pictures also feel appreciative and convivial and celebratory? And can’t sharing pictures increase a feeling of connectedness? And aren’t these exactly the kinds of feelings that fuel Thanksgiving, that give it its glow?
Gah! It just doesn’t add up.
Fortunately, Sontag also knew quite a lot about the spirit of Thanksgiving. Poet and literary critic James Fenton described sharing the holiday with her once in the 1990s, arriving with a large flower arrangement and placing it on the table. “Outrage spread over her,” Fenton wrote of Sontag. “I could see her thinking: Who on earth could have been so gross or so dumb as to put those flowers in my line of vision? We’re here for conversation, for heaven’s sake, not to look at some bunch of flowers. And then, before I could remedy the mistake, she swept the flowers away with a look and a gesture not far from fury.”
Here’s the deal. In principle, I see nothing wrong with photographing your Thanksgiving dinner. But do it in a Thanksgivingish way: Take some pics of your family too; compliment the chefs as you shoot their food; make it playful and inclusive somehow. In short, make sure you and your shutterbuggery add to the beauty of the meal, instead of being like those flowers—something beautifully intentioned but recklessly in the way.