The Photographs of Dave Mason
Writer and philosopher Susan Sontag once told us that a picture alone doesn’t speak for itself – it requires a deeper level of awareness, of information, of context, of explanation, to understand its fullest meaning and our response to it. During these confusing times, this thoughtful concept is well worth revisiting.
What Sontag famously explored in her 1977 book Regarding the Pain of Others, Sophia Mason puts into motion in an online exhibit and photographic essay unveiled last month (link below). With her “Regarding the Pain and Celebration of Others,” Mason explores her responses to the forces of still images, in the photos of photographer Dave Mason (who, yes, also happens to be her father) who captured a few weeks of protests during the beginnings of the Black Lives Matter movement this summer.
For proper context, Sontag’s book and her dozens of discussions about the powers of the photograph dealt not with our responses to protests but to distant wars, with the construct that graphic images of war would provoke recoil, that would give rise to learning, that would prompt the viewer to consider the question, “What might I feel if that were me?”
This empathic viewing is central to Sophia Mason’s exhibit. “While Mason’s protest photos are never gruesome,” says Sophia, “there is a gruesome neglect and oppression as the impetus for each protest he captures. . . where we let our laws do violence to people and their families in many ways. So I argue that even without capturing violence and death explicitly, protest photos also force us to contend with the two roles they conjure, the coward and the spectator, as Sontag theorizes.”
Sontag considered this engagement essential in leading a moral life. “It’s hard to make the effort to think of how the other person feels,” she once said. “That’s really what a moral life is – is trying to take in the reality of what other people feel or how they see things from their point of view.”
In today’s world and the constant barrage of photographs and images we see, from television to social media, it is arguably more important than ever to take into account Sontag’s words, to consider how others feel, to make every effort, with a different lens, to see their point of view.
In her essay, Sophia Mason aims to invite us to regard these images – to see, to feel, to contemplate – for their context, but also in an inspired tangential riff off of Sontag’s philosophies, to celebrate the points of view of those who have engaged in nonviolent protests in recent years, as well as those who took to the streets in peaceful, courageous protests that started after the world witnessed a video’d murder on Memorial Day weekend, 2020.
. . . Then Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd on Monday, May 25, 2020 and those throwing themselves at officer Chauvin captured his crime on video. . . By Thursday, May 28th, Mason had photographs of a silent, peaceful protest that supposedly warranted over 50 officers in riot gear. He captured no physical violence or wounds in his photos.~Sophia Mason, from her essay “Regarding the Pain and Celebration of Others”
Dave Mason takes pictures of public events in Memphis and posts them to his instagram, @fatsodoctor*, within a few days of the event. Such public events rolled to a stop in March and April 2020 as Memphis banned public gathering due to the COVID-19 pandemic. *Fatsodoctor is a childhood nickname he now backs up with a Ph.D. in Theater.
Sophia Mason is an artist residing in Midtown. She makes art about her religious experience and keeps a blog at sophiamasonart.wordpress.com. Sophia has also contributed to StoryBoard this year with her two part graphic essay Gordon School: An Episode From Memphis.