Synthesizing Stories

In Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, Susan Sontag’s On Photography, and Jorge Borges’ “The Circular Ruins”, the theme of the manipulation of reality is extremely prevalent. Barthes, Sontag and Borges divulge in their writings that reality is truly subjective. Specifically, Sontag and Barthes use photographs to show a manipulation of reality, while Borges’s master dreamer uncovers how dreams play a role in our view of reality.  

Reality is subjective, because it can be manipulated by either the photographer or the subject to represent different perspectives. Most people view photography as a tool to “furnish evidence” (Sontag). However, Sontag argues in her piece “On Photography” that “[e]ven when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience.” Although photographers might not even be aware of their manipulation, the whole point of their work is to send a message. Therefore, interpretation and personal style is inevitable in a photograph. This makes it impossible to achieve an objective reality through photographs.

Sontag also encapsulates the essential role of the photographer in the manipulation of the photographer’s subject and the manipulation of reality when she describes how photographers “would take dozens of frontal pictures of one of their sharecropper subjects until satisfied that they had gotten just the right look on film… that supported their own notions about poverty, light, dignity, texture, exploitation, and geometry.” (Sontag). This shows how the “reality” that some people think photography captures isn’t the reality for everyone. Everything is an interpretation. Photography can’t be an exact snippet of reality when the subject of the picture is putting on an act.

Furthermore, in Camera Lucida, Barthes describes how subjects often pose for the camera, making it impossible for the photograph to be a true glimpse into reality because the subject is not portraying their true, candid self. For example, it could be a reality that the subject of a photograph is smiling; however, if a person sees that picture and assumes the subject is happy, that is their interpretation of the reality. One might look at the picture of the subject posing and assume one reality, when it is really another. Because of this, reality is determined by one’s perspective and is therefore subjective. Barthes also describes how the subject being photographed feels that they are “neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object”. According to the narrator, being photographed makes one feel as though they are no longer full of life but merely an object under another’s control. The idea of a subject becoming an object plays with reality as well because it is difficult to know the reality of the person being photographed: are they a subject or an object? If photography transforms a subject into an object, it is impossible that they reflect an objective reality.

Additionally, reality is subjective because dreams can offer multiple realities through multiple possible perspectives. This is exemplified through Borges’ main character in his story “The Circular Ruins”. At first, the reader thinks that the main man is real and the son is fake. However, the reader is then told that the master dreamer himself is dreamt up. Certainly one reality is that the man is real, but another opposing reality is that he is just a dream. Therefore, there are multiple realities depending on one’s interpretation and perspective. This thus demonstrates how reality is subjective and there is not one objective reality. Moreover, the man’s dreams are a reality to him, but might not be for everyone. For example, Borges writes that “[h]e wanted to dream him completely, in painstaking detail, and impose him upon reality.” The phrase “impose him on reality” exposes the apparent manipulation of reality related to this man’s dreams. If the dreaming man wants to impose something on reality, and believes he is capable of doing so, then the reality is subjective to this man’s interpretation. Borges, throughout his writing, asks the reader to question the relationship between dreams and reality and whether or not there is some overlap between the two. This is clear because the author is constantly using the word “real”: “insert him into the real world”, “accustomed the youth to reality”, “that his unreal son”. Perhaps the man doesn’t think the son is “real”, but others perceive him as real. Borges exposes a certain truth about reality: that reality can only be objective if everyone agrees on it and sees the same thing. However, with dreams, one reality can not be agreed on and is therefore subjective. Thus, the element of dreams in Borges’ The Circular Ruins exhibits a manner in which reality is subjective to one’s interpretation and perspective, and how reality is never one objective truth.

The works of authors Barthes, Sontag, and Borges reveal that reality is subjective, and one can see that through the element of photography in On Photography and Camera Lucida as well as through the element of dreams in The Circular Ruins. There is never one truth or reality; one makes one’s own reality and truth through their personalized interpretation of events. Everyone has a natural bias and interpretation, therefore making it impossible to see an objective reality. And really, since no one can see it, does an objective really even exist at all? url sontag_photography004 {3C98DCDA-B3DA-48D8-9BD9-B458C5ACAE6A}Img400