Regarding the Pain of Others
by Susan Sontag
Hamish Hamilton £12.99, pp128
This is Susan Sontag's second book on photography and, like the first, published in 1977, it contains no photographs. Omission or suppression? Sontag is concerned with photography's prurient intrusiveness, its surreal dislocation of reality, its 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.
Having been drip-fed fantasies and outright lies, how can we properly respond to the remote, exotic miseries on which photographic journalists report? 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. 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).
Words are Sontag's antidote to images. Hence her argument 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. If you ask me, she has too much faith in the veracity of scribbling hacks.
I'm also 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'. Again, her self-denying ordinance prevents her showing any evidence. Before photography, revolutions were instigated by verbal slogans, contagiously chanted by crowds: 'No Taxation without Representation' in 1776, or 'Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité' in 1789. Sontag gives us nothing to look at, so I cannot see that anything has changed.
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. The 'weight and seriousness' of images like these is more aptly honoured privately in sober silence, she believes, in a book.
I hope she does not mean the book - or booklet - she has written. 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.
Perhaps I am not being entirely just to a writer I usually admire. The book, I should admit, does contain a single photograph. You 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 Cîté.
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.
Do her 30,000 words really balance or outweigh the missing images? It all depends on how you regard the vanity of others, or how much pain you want to cause by telling the truth.
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Susan Sontag is an American author born on January 16, 1933 in New York City, New York. After graduating high school, she attended the University of Chicago and later enrolled at Harvard University to study philosophy and theology. Sontag began her foray into the literary realm with the publication of her first novel entitled The Benefactor (1963). While she wrote on the side, she also taught philosophy at various schools around the city, including Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University. In 1977, Sontag published On Photography, a series of essays that explored the nature of photo-taking in the modern day. She later released a book in 2003,Regarding the Pain of Others, that dealt with the same topic but in the context of war imagery.
Regarding the Pain of Others discusses how photographs of war influence people’s perceptions of violence. Photojournalists are constantly struggling to balance integrity and the need to evoke sympathy when it comes to documenting a particular event. Sontag points out issues of authenticity, censorship, and bias when it comes to the photographic medium.
When it was published in 2003, Sontag’s book received a great deal of praise from critics and readers, but failed to surpass the acclaim of On Photography. Peter Conrad of The Guardian describes Regarding the Pain of Others as “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.” Nevertheless, it succeeded in garnering a nomination for the National Book Critics Circle Award. This was Sontag’s last published work before her death on December 28, 2004.