"Regarding the Pain of Others" by Susan Sontag

May 24, 2014  •  1 Comment

I have the good fortune of spending two weeks in New York City. To be more exact, I am residing in the neighborhood of Red Hook in the borough of Brooklyn, in an AirBnB discovered "huge artist loft" (this last is the lodging owner's AirBnB title characterization but it is rather accurate). It's quite an interesting place on the top (fourth) floor of a former luggage factory. It offers a great view of the lower Manhattan skyline to the west, some of it seen through the tall cranes along the Brooklyn dockyards on the East River.  It is more than a little different from my ordinary residence back in suburban Maryland, middle class suburbia on steriods. In the loft is a bookcase packed with titles that I find extremely interesting. One such is a short book by Susan Sontag titled Regarding the Pain of Others. Susan was an American intellectual who, among much other work, wrote very eloquently about photography. Her most noted work in this regard is On Photography, a series of essays published in 1977.

Regarding the Pain of Others is a book about photography but more so, it is a book about photographs and their influence upon us and what, if any, impact a photograph of human suffering can have on us or should have on us. The opening paragraphs quickly set the central theme of her discussion, referencing a 1938 book by Virginia Woolf (written during the Spanish Civil War), Three Guineas, in which the female writer responds to a letter from a male friend posing the question "How in your opinion are we to prevent war." Woolf disputes the "we" in the question, since the question is posed by a male to a female. Woolf asserts that war is primarily a male endeavor so the two parties to the discussion are coming from different directions. To demonstrate the difference in viewpoints, Woolf writes, "Let's see, whether when we look at the same photographs we feel the same things" and goes on to describe a photograph in that day's paper from the Spanish Civil War showing the aftermath from a bomb blast in a house. This question of how one responds to photographs showing others in agony and pain is the core of Sontag's discussion. The "pain of others" in her title refers to human-on-human inflicted pain primarily under the auspices of war. The question Sontag ponders is if and how the medium of photography, through its graphic depiction of the horrors of war, can possibly mitigate the human tendency to engage in war and more generally how should we respond to photographic images of human suffering that is caused by the action of other humans.

At this point you could be thinking that humans have depicted the pain of others well before the invention of photography and you would be correct. Paintings, etchings, and sculptures through the centuries have depicted human-on-human inflicted suffering and pain, whether through wars, religious persecutions, martyrdom and/or all of the above. Museums and churches are filled with depictions of such events and we call such images 'art'. Sontag discusses this and very nicely I might add, but she goes on to make a good case that photographs are different. They are not just images that sprang from the imagination of the artist, most often made with the intent to inspire, mystify or motivate. Even if made by a realist artist who may have been an eye-witness to some depicted event, a painting or any representational depiction, was made afterwards and is tainted by the inability of the eye-witness to see and remember everything and by the artist's biases and goals in making the representation. Photographs on the other hand are generally assumed to represent the unvarnished reality of what transpired. We expect that photographs of a battle scene or its aftermath are the depiction of the reality of some event that took place in an exact place and at an exact time. If there are dead or maimed individuals, these are or were living, breathing human beings like ourselves. Yes, photographs too are influenced by the photographer's biases and decisions as to where to point the lens and when to press the shutter release - but whatever is represented in the image is what was there, at least that is what most viewers assume. Even before photoshop however, things were not so simple. Photographs of battlefield scenes were often altered, posed or staged in order to present images acceptable to the side sponsoring the photographer. If anything, with the transition to digital over the past 20 years and all that digital manipulation permits, ethical standards for photographers in war zones have become much more stringent. Sontag makes the case that this more rigid adherence to non-alteration began with the Vietnam War, the addition of television to the battlefield, and the transition of journalist/photographer from propagandist/booster for a war to potential anti-war activist.

Sontag discusses the history of photography on the world's battlefields, the impact it made, and the controversies that inevitably followed. The first known war photographer was Roger Fenton, who was sent under contract to the British government to photograph the Crimean War. He was precluded from photographing the British dead, maimed or ill. At the same period another Brit, Felice Beato photographed several British wars, the Sepoy rebellion in India, the second Opium War in China and the Sudanese colonial wars. In the US, Mathew Brady was approved by none other than Abraham Lincoln to photograph the US Civil War. Sontag discusses the choices and changes made by each of these photographers to present images that would be deemed acceptable to the home front. Still, their images could not help but show the suffering and ravages their wars inflicted, at least to those on the other side. As for the 20th century, sadly there is simply too much to relate. There were the two World War's with the Spanish Civil War in between, the Vietnam War, the Cambodian killing fields, the Rwandan genocide, and the Balkan War each with their iconic photographs of human-on-human atrocities.

The book does not show any photographs, to do so would be blasphemous to Sontag's reverent intentions. It does discuss many specific photographs of relevance, most so iconic that one does not need to see them. Among them are the Robert Capa photograph from the Spanish Civil War of the republican soldier at the instant of being shot, the many photographs from April-May 1945 of the eastern European concentration camps, the Eddie Adams' photograph of the point blank execution of the suspected Vietcong insurgent in a Saigon street, and the 1972 photograph by Huynh Cong Ut of the naked children running down a road, fleeing the napalm bombing of their village. Controversy surrounds some of these and others that she discusses, were they 'staged' and if so by how much. But she is concerned with much more than the controversies of spontaneity and realism, the main concern is how should 'we' - who are in a sense disinterested and removed from the actual horror and fear and death of the instant being viewed - view such images. What should we come away with?

This book was written after 9/11 so Sontag discusses the images from the World Trade Center collapse as well. Here she goes on brief but well stated diversion of professional vs amateur photographer, I quote her:

Photography is the only major art in which professional training and years of experience do not confer an insuperable advantage over the untrained and inexperienced - this for many reasons, among them the large role that chance (or luck) plays in the taking of pictures, and the bias toward spontaneous, the rough, the imperfect.

Some folks may take umbrage at her view, I do not. I agree.

Human behavior since the invention of photography has given us far too many examples and case studies relating to photography's influence on war and violence. Sontag's best writing is in regard to what such photographs should mean for us, how we should view them and what our response should be. She has no answers, she only raises questions and ponders alternatives. I praise her unbiased and non-judgemental analysis and I thank her for asking the question of what it means to view such images.

As for me, I don't believe there are 'answers' to the questions she raises. We can ask the questions, they are good questions, they are worthy of thought, reflection and discussion, and we can reflect on what these questions mean for each us individually. And then we can go about living our lives, hopefully trying to make peace and bring peace wherever we can, loving our neighbor and doing unto others as we would have them do unto us.


Comments

Lew Lorton(non-registered)
"Photography is the only major art in which professional training and years of experience do not confer an insuperable advantage over the untrained and inexperienced - this for many reasons, among them the large role that chance (or luck) plays in the taking of pictures, and the bias toward spontaneous, the rough, the imperfect."

I agree with this paragraph but I think that in present day there is another leveling component. Both the ubiquity of cameras and their technical sophistication means that anyone, any time, any place can take a technically adequate picture when chance intervenes.

Nice review.
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