Trip to Hanoi
Posted July 29, 2013
Before leaving for Hanoi in the spring of 1968, Susan Sontag steeped herself in documentary coverage of the U.S. war in Vietnam, poring over photographs that have long since become iconic. These images of civilians on bicycles and bomb shelters lining the streets of Hanoi helped Sontag to imagine Vietnam from afar. When she arrived in Hanoi, however, she was dismayed to find that the actual North Vietnam was less compelling than the place she had created in her mind. The trip to Hanoi prompted Sontag to think carefully about how we respond to distant suffering, and paved the way for her influential critique of photography.
We tend to regard Sontag’s cultural criticism in isolation without taking into account the activism that frequently informed it. Specifically, Sontag’s ideas about photography developed in tandem with her commitment to the practice of political travel. Sontag believed that direct experience imparted special knowledge. As she told novelist Kenzaburo Oe in 2000, "Something I long ago promised myself was that I would never take positions on what I had not known, seen, with my own eyes." Throughout her life, Sontag traveled to controversial or embattled destinations—including Cuba, Vietnam, China, Bosnia, and Poland.
Sontag traveled to Hanoi to express her opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam. Upon return, she wrote Trip to Hanoi, which describes her experience in North Vietnam. There are no photographs in this book, and indeed, the book rejects the kind of knowledge—intense, vicarious, partial—that photographs impart in favor of painstakingly detailed introspection. Far from a conventional travelogue, Sontag’s account of her “trip” reflects the enthusiasm for mind-expansion and consciousness-raising that characterized the counterculture of the late 1960’s. Documenting her reactions to North Vietnam, which are often narrow-minded and condescending, Sontag observes her own imperialist habits of mind, and works to change them.
In On Photography (1977), the pernicious mental habits that Sontag analyzes and eventually casts off in Hanoi resurface as generalized traits of photographic perception. On Photography describes the objectification of foreign cultures as a fundamental feature of photographic vision: shooting and viewing photographs, Americans learn to see the world as theirs for the taking. On Photography’s rapacious tourist, who mistakes gratifying images for reality, appears the alter-ego of the activist—Sontag herself—who travels to the scene of war.
Like Trip to Hanoi, On Photography contains no photographs. This absence is in keeping with the volume’s harsh critique of photography. Yet it also suggests the degree to which, as Sontag herself admitted at the time, it isn't really a book about photographs at all. It is a book about the relationship between perception and knowledge, or as Sontag put it, between “experience and the capacity to judge this experience.” According to Sontag, when we look at photographs we mistake the intensities of the image for reality and, in doing so, dodge the demands of self-knowledge and social critique. Sontag, by contrast, put photographs to one side in order to travel to Hanoi, and regarded them differently upon return.
Franny Nudelman is an associate professor at Carleton University, where she teaches courses on 19th and 20th century American literature and culture. Her first book, John Brown's Body: Slavery, Violence, and the Culture of War, considers representations of the Civil War dead in song, poetry, and photography. She is currently writing a book about anti-war documentary of the Vietnam era. A longer version of her work on Sontag's experience in Vietnam, and its influence on her writing about photography, is forthcoming in the journal Photography and Culture.