Table of Contents
One of the distinguishing features of modern life is that it supplies countless opportunities for regarding at a distance, through the medium of photography horrors taking place throughout the world. Images of atrocities have become, via the little screens of the television and the computer, something of a commonplace (http://www.themontrealreview.com/2009/Susan-Sontag-Regarding-the-Pain-of-Others.php).
Her aim, it seems, is not so much to answer the above questions but to provoke us by her statements, urging us at least to think about what happens when suffering is viewed third hand; because after all, she reminds us, we see only what the photographer wanted us to see. When scenes of violence are as close as our morning papers or TV screens, Sontag’s is an important debate (http://www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2003/aug/03/society). This is also a book about how war itself is waged and understood in our time, replete with vivid historical examples and a variety of arguments advanced from some unexpected literary sources. Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, Edmund Burke, Wordsworth, Baudelaire, and Virginia Woolf all figure in this passionate reflection on the modern understanding of violence and atrocity. It includes as well a stinging attack on the provincialism of media pundits who denigrate the reality of war, and a political understanding of conflict, with glib talk about a new, worldwide society of spectacle just as on photography challenged how we understand the very condition of being modern, Regarding the Pain of Others will alter our thinking not only about the uses and meanings of images, but about the nature of war, the limits of sympathy, and the obligations of conscience (http://www.susansontag.com/). Susan Sontag examines the manner in which war is perceived, taking into account such factors as sex, culture and status. She contends that war imagery is open to both interpretation and manipulation. Sontag rejects the notion that war imagery will necessarily compel a repudiation of war, instead arguing that war is itself perennial. Sontag claims that a photo’s meaning is based on interpretation, perhaps formed of ignorance. Images make events seem real to viewers, even as they seem unreal in their similarity to art. Images, however, have impeccable veracity to the human mind, representing as they do the basis of empirical truth. Sontag reminds the reader, however, that images are first filtered through image takers. Sontag explains that a picture’s meaning is derived through a synthesis of artifice, context and experience (http://www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2003/aug/03/society).
The author is centrally focused on how people engage the pain and suffering of others. Of particular interest to Sontag, in part due to its particular interest to people in general, is the pain caused by war. Not she being from a war-torn country, Sontag, like many Americans, draws upon secondary sources for her understanding, secondary sources such as art, photography and film. Sontag uses her once-removed experience as an opportunity to examine the manner in which she, and other like herself, understands the world. She realizes that, as an American, she is privileged. Most of the privileged world has little experience with war, and thus are ill equipped to understand the pain it brings. What little they know is gleaned from the newspaper or the nightly news: discrete, disembodied images that fail to convey the harrowing truth beyond (http://www.susansontag.com/).
She also gives a brief history of photo journalism, from the Crimean and civil wars to the almost instantaneous transmission of images from operation Iraqi freedom. In chapters that sometimes seem to disagree with one another, she plays the devil’s advocate and views the idea of photographs of suffering from all directions. And if a war photo is posed a corpse moved for a better shot or a battle scene restaged to make it more dramatic is the effect enhanced or decreased (http://www.susansontag.com/). She considers the impact of candid photos versus those technologically manipulated. She discusses how photos, and their impact on us, change when the names of the victims are revealed. Sontag’s statements about photographs of suffering might also help us think about the function of writing and reading about others suffering. When she says “No we should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain” I thought of how differently a patient’s suffering might be written about by a doctor, a nurse, a lover, the patient himself, those of different cultures or beliefs. When Sontag says “The photographs are a means of making real or more real matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore” I thought of how we attempt to use literature to guide the healthy caregiver to a more visceral understanding of suffering. She says that when we look at a photo, we should ask ourselves what atrocities are not being shown (http://www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2003/aug/03/society). Compelling and profound, Susan Sontag’s essay deploys her considerable skills of cultural criticism to engage crucial questions that matter to everyone disposed to think, feel, respond, and act in ways that flow out of our sense of humanity a sense, moreover, that can only continue to develop in response to regular reflection upon such questions. This essay exemplifies how the humanities shape and sharpen habits of thought that allow us to discern a sense of purpose in life. Regarding the Pain of Others can be thought of as a continuation of the line of thought that Sontag pursued in on photography (http://www.themontrealreview.com/2009/Susan-Sontag-Regarding-the-Pain-of-Others.php). Consequently, the brilliant observations and rather flawed conclusions that mark that particular work exist here as well. Susan Sontag writes about the moral implications of photography in war and questions our perceptions which impact our actions. It’s a pleasure to read because she writes simply and clearly without jeopardizing on her well thought through arguments. I liked her thoughts on the subject of the photograph that are the photographed, what are their perception of the picture, the impact after the picture is taken, and the pain felt by their families and friends (http://www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2003/aug/03/society).
Bataille’s photograph is a horrifying picture of a man suffering the “death of a hundred cuts,” as he is flayed and dismembered while still alive.
Krieg dem Krieg, or “War against War,” is Ernst Friedrich’s uncompromising photo album covering the destruction of World War I.
Newspapers are the standard of mass media, defining the baseline for taste and decorum. Due to politics and propriety, newspapers seldom print photographs of war casualties.
Tabloids, in accordance with the guideline “If it bleeds, it leads” are more likely to present scenes of death and destruction than their more credible counterparts.
Vietnam was the first nation, and war, to experience the continuous war coverage of modern journalism.
Sontag points out that the German concentration camps at the end of World War II were photographed and filmed outside the context of the camps operation, thus failing to capture their heartless efficiency.
Sontag separates image creators into two groups (http://www.susansontag.com/). The first group, the image makers, is unquestionably subjective. They do not reproduce reality so much as they represent it. Goya’s Disasters of War, for example, does not offer objective proof of the war crimes the artist witnessed. Rather, Goya represents, through images, an experience similar to what he has seen. The made image is filtered entirely through the eyes of its creator. The second type of image creator is the image taker, one who creates images through the use of film. The word take here refers to an image taken directly from life, suggesting that film serves as an objective reproduction of reality. The veracity of a photograph is widely regarded as above reproach, so much so that photographs are admissible as evidence in a court of law (http://www.themontrealreview.com/2009/Susan-Sontag-Regarding-the-Pain-of-Others.php).
Sontag is concerned with photography’s prurient intrusiveness, its surreal dislocation of reality it is irrelevant aestheticism. Actual photographs are of less interest to her, and are mentioned, in stern verbal paraphrase, only to be reproved for their untrustworthiness. Her earlier book concluded with a call for “an ecology of images”, censuring and perhaps censoring the visual stimuli with which a consumerist society assaults us. She remembers that resonant, impotent demand in Regarding the Pain of Others, and admits that it will never happen. No “Committee of Guardians” is going to reform news media that enjoy disaster, gloat over horror and operate on the principle that “If it bleeds, it leads”. Those media have trained us only too well, and we now, instinctively transform an intolerable, unintelligible reality into fiction. People who watched the planes slice through the World Trade Centre, or witnessed the collapse of the towers, agreed that the scene was ‘unreal’ and compared it with an action movie; the Pentagon caters to this craving for scenarios that are apocalyptic but ultimately harmless by deciding in advance on blockbusting titles for its wars, such as Operation Desert Storm. Sontag retells the familiar stories about photographs that sanitise or falsify the conflict they are supposed to be documenting. In the Crimea, Roger Fenton represented war as a “dignified all male outing”, avoiding all evidence of carnage: in the valley through which the Light Brigade charged, he supervised the placing of cannonballs on the road. In 1945, the Russian victors hoisting the Red Flag over the Reichstag in Berlin took direction from a Soviet war photographer who dreamt up this iconic moment (http://www.susansontag.com/). In our “culture of spectatorship”, have we lost the power to be shocked? The pain of others titillates us, so long as it is kept at a safe distance (http://www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2003/aug/03/society). The victims of famine and massacre are always, as Neville Chamberlain dismissively said of the Poles, people we do not know; when genocide recurred during the Bosnian war, we were reminded that the Balkans should not be considered part of Europe. The young Afghan refugee photographed by Steve McCurry for National Geographic became, a poster girl for atrocity; we could see her pain but not feel it. Sontag blames the eyes indiscriminate lust, claiming “the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked”. Her book, unillustrated, caters to neither hunger though she does tantalisingly describe a photograph that obsessed the perverse philosopher Georges Bataille, in which a Chinese criminal, while being chopped up and slowly flayed by executioners, rolls his eyes heavenwards in transcendent bliss (http://www.themontrealreview.com/2009/Susan-Sontag-Regarding-the-Pain-of-Others.php). Words are Sontag’s antidote to images. Hence her arguments that the war photographs of Robert Capa or David Seymour belong in newspapers, where they are surrounded by words, rather than in magazines, which juxtapose them with glossy advertising images: the explanatory verbiage is a bulwark, and turns the fickle viewer into a reflective, questioning reader. People unconvinced by her contention that images can easily be conscripted as the “totems of causes”, because sentiment is more likely to crystallise around a photograph than around a verbal slogan. At the end of the book, she proposes that ‘photographs with the most solemn or heart-rending subject matter Matthew Brady’s dead soldiers from the Civil War, the walking cadavers at Buchenwald and Dachau photographed by Margaret Bourke White and Lee Miller, perhaps also Nicholas Nixon’s Aids victims should not be exhibited in galleries or museums, where like all wall hung or floor supported art they become incidental to a stroll, displayed as if they were plates on a sushi railway which we can sample or ignore as we please (http://www.susansontag.com/). The “weight and seriousness” of images like these is more aptly honoured privately in sober silence, she believes, in a book. Regarding the Pain of Others is serious enough, but hardly weighty. It is short, and by rights should be a good deal shorter: it derives from an Amnesty lecture, and labours to amplify and relentlessly repeat its original argument. Readers can find it on the inside back flap of the jacket, and it shows Sontag herself a mater dolorosa whose grieving face is framed by a sleek cascade of time defying jet black hair posed next to a wall beside the Seine near the Ile de la Cite. The photographer is her close friend, Annie Leibovitz, who specialises in the glamorous consecration of celebs for the covers of Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. In her starchy text, Sontag says that beautifying is one classic operation of the camera, and regrets the vanity of people who are “always disappointed by a photograph that is not flattering”. By including Leibovitz’s portrait, she has exempted herself from her own rule (http://www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2003/aug/03/society).
http://www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2003/aug/03/society [Accessed on 10th March 2013]
http://www.susansontag.com/ [Accessed on 10th March 2013]
http://www.themontrealreview.com/2009/Susan-Sontag-Regarding-the-Pain-of-Others.php [Accessed on 7th March 213]