Above: Tourists gather on the headland at Cape Sounion. Credit: Perikles Merakos.
In Derrida's only sustained text on the philosophy of photography, Athens Still Remains, one of the most memorable passages is his appraisal of the self-timer shutter-release that can be found on most cameras.
Derrida's text is based around Jean-Francois Bonhomme's photos taken in Greece which include many featuring aspects of evidence of Greek Antiquity. Through these photos Derrida is put in mind of the story of the death of Socrates. Socrates was condemned to death by commanded or enforced suicide. However, the rulers of ancient Athens did not want to have an execution going on while an important sea voyage to Delos was underway. (It might bring bad luck on the voyagers.) So it was decreed that Socrates was to go about killing himself only once the ship was safely back in harbour. With this in mind the friends and associates of Socrates gathered on the headland at Cape Sounion, a lookout from which the returning ship would first be sighted.
The precise hour or day of the return of the ship was not known, all there was, was to wait. Socrates at this point was a dead-man walking: there was a delay of an unknown length (that would be over when the ship from Delos sailed into view) during which Socrates "owed himself to death."
For Derrida, a micro-version of this delay comes into play when we use the self-timer on a camera. During the delay, after the shutter is pressed, we, the waiting sitters, "owe ourselves to a photo," and in that sense the delay incorporates something of the horrifying wait that Socrates had to undergo. We wait with bated breath for the shutter to finally click, a click we keep anticipating, and in those moments we are held-in-abeyance, frozen but still living-and-breathing. In those seconds we might get some sense of what Socrates was feeling, or more generally we might comprehend something of the rather dark exhortation: We owe ourselves to death.
Just a little something to think about next time you decide to make a self-timer photo!
(12 October 2018)