Regarding the Pain of Others
By Susan Sontag, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 139 pages, $20.00
"Ever since cameras were invented in 1839, photography has kept company with death": Thirty years after the first of the essays eventually collected in On Photography, which was published in 1977, Susan Sontag is still troubled by the aesthetic, moral and political ambiguities of the medium. Regarding the Pain of Others is her erudite, subtle and provocative -- though also tentative and sometimes inconclusive -- meditation on the tensions inherent in photographs of war, death and devastation. Such pictures seem to multiply with every passing day. Does that make their horrors more palpable or less? Many are technically proficient; some are even beautiful. Does beauty celebrate violence and ferocity or does it simply entice a larger audience to confront them? They seem to establish a bond between viewer and victim. Does compassion incite us to fight injustice or does it permit us to feel innocent of it and impotent against it?
Photography is not the only visual medium to go hand in hand with death. Death has been the constant companion of all visual representation since its very beginnings. In the oldest historic work of art, a bronze palette from 3150 B.C., Menes, king of Upper Egypt, is about to crush an enemy's head with his mace and add the body to the mound of corpses lying at his feet. Unlike the painter's hand or the sculptor's arm, however, the camera is a machine. It registers physical traces of things. A photograph seems to be more than just a representation because, somehow, the representation allows us to look through it and see its subject directly, as if it were literally before our eyes. A photograph is "a record of the real."
That is one reason pictures of pain and suffering are so unsettling: A photograph of starving mothers and their children in Biafra makes us feel, willy-nilly, that we are standing before them, at best unable and at worst unwilling to intervene. That is not to say that all pictures of horror have similar effects; ambiguity is inescapable. An image of dead civilians in the Middle East may draw me to the victims on humanitarian grounds or confirm your abhorrence of war, though to Israelis or Palestinians it may simply be proof of the other side's brutality. Sontag shows that context is critical to determining whom a photograph will outrage and whom it will delight. The same pictures of dead children, with different captions, served to denounce both Serb and Croat atrocities in the early 1990s. Still, photographs that appall present their own special problems.
Why, for example, is it so difficult to tear oneself away from them? In 1968, Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executed a Vietcong suspect on a Saigon street. In a terrifying photograph -- much more disturbing than the tape of the whole sequence -- Eddie Adams captured the moment of the shooting. Contorted by pain, fear and the sheer force of the bullet that has just struck him, the prisoner's face also expresses a kind of sad resignation. It is the face of a man who knows that he has already died. Whenever I see it again (and I have seen it many times already), I find myself gazing at it intently, with a curiosity that is almost morbid. Although I am, to be sure, horrified, I also suspect that, as I study the man's face for a hint of what that moment feels like, part of me is glad that it is he who is dead and not I. (Plato showed that speaking of oneself as a collection of fragments is inevitable here.)
What does it say about me that I may find pleasure in another's death? And what does it say about us that I am not alone? Sontag, too, is disturbed by the photograph. "As for the viewer, this viewer," she confesses in the hesitating manner characteristic of this book, "even many years after the picture was taken ... well, one can gaze at these faces for a long time and not come to the end of the mystery, and the indecency, of such co-spectatorship." Averting our gaze is not the solution, she writes, as, "The gruesome invites us to be either spectators or cowards, unable to look."
Photographs of contemporary atrocities, at least, may provoke effective action. The purpose of looking at photographs of the past -- such as the lynching souvenirs in James Allen's collection Without Sanctuary, published in 2000 -- is much more disputable. Old or new, however, no picture can speak for itself; neither the photographer's intention nor its visual content determines its meaning, purpose or effect. Adams' photograph (to his dismay) galvanized the anti-war movement, but only because the movement was already in place, ready to circulate its own interpretation. But where opponents of the war saw callous indifference in Gen. Loan's impassive profile, supporters of U.S. policy could discern stoic devotion to duty.
Despite being mute, pictures can still be manipulative. Some of the most famous war photographs, for example, turn out to have been staged. The Light Brigade never rode into the plain that Roger Fenton, the first war photographer, chose to depict in "The Valley of the Shadow of Death" (1855) and over which he carefully arranged the cannonballs that litter the landscape. Alexander Gardner's "The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg" (1863) is of an imaginary scene, created specially for the occasion. Some suspect that even Robert Capa's "Falling Soldier" (1936) -- the model of "spontaneous" photography -- may have been posed for the camera. Sontag doesn't find that surprising; what strikes her as odd is that "we are surprised to learn that they were staged, and always disappointed."
Actually, when photographs of contemporary events, which we might still affect, are at issue, we are more likely to be angry than disappointed -- a staged picture is a kind of false advertising. It is when we discover that older photographs were staged that we are disappointed, especially if they are well known. Perhaps, then, we might begin to find an explanation in the relationship between photography and memory. Images, often provided in the first instance by photographs, are essential to memory. For example, the war in Bosnia is inseparable in my mind from an image of a Serb militiaman about to kick a Muslim woman lying on the ground -- inseparable, that is, from Ron Haviv's 1992 photograph. If it turned out that Bosnian propaganda had staged the scene, I would be very angry (these are still recent events), but I would also have to ask: Would my feelings today be the same had the picture, and the turmoil it caused me, not been a factor in my life? My stand on the new Balkan wars? My political views? How can we help being disappointed with ourselves when we are made to see how easily we might have been somebody else?
Turning from viewer to victim, Sontag criticizes Sebastião Salgado's photographs -- not, like most others, for being beautiful but for always leaving the powerless they represent nameless and so reducing them to their generic features, just as under the single heading "Migration" Salgado groups together different kinds of misery produced by different causes in different countries. His vast and abstract scale makes suffering seem almost natural and certainly too uniform and widespread to be affected by any specific political action. "All politics," however, "like all of history, is concrete." That's why, I think, Serajevans, as Sontag reports, would yell at photographers as the bombs fell around them, "Are you waiting for a shell to go off so you can photograph some corpses?" Some corpses. In anticipation, it seems as if it doesn't matter whose as long as there is something to shoot; naming, if it comes at all, can only come later and is no consolation to the victim.
Sontag now rightly rejects the view, central to On Photography, that as images of violence and devastation proliferate, their horrors turn into mere spectacle and their viewers become inured to them. Her reasons are not clear, but she is convinced that exposure to these images does not dull their impact. They serve as reminders that "this is what human beings are capable of doing -- may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don't forget." But Sontag, I think, is overlooking the fact that this is something pictures can do only if someone of her intelligence and sensibility lends them her voice. In the book's closing sections, the ambiguities of photography recede further and further into the background as looking is gradually transformed into "elective attention," "thinking" and, finally, "the function of the mind itself." At that point its guilty pleasures have also disappeared. Sontag writes, "There's nothing wrong with standing back and thinking, ... 'Nobody can think and hit someone at the same time.'"
Perhaps. But nobody can hurt and think at the same time, either. The only pain we can ever regard is necessarily the pain of others -- most often remote and exotic others but sometimes also those whose only difference from us is in the pain they feel. In the distance that separates observer and observed there is always room for the thought, "At least it is not happening to me," and, with it, for photography's questionable pleasures. To those who have felt them, these pleasures intimate that we can never be sure whose role we would play if we were to find ourselves in a world of real violence. Or, as Sontag writes about the ordinary people posing for snapshots with the charred bodies of their lynched victims in Without Sanctuary: "Maybe they were barbarians. Maybe this is what most barbarians look like. (They look like everybody else.)"
Although Regarding the Pain of Others is brimming with questions, its answers are few and seldom more definite than this tentative statement, which is typical of the book as a whole and fitting to its equivocal subject. That has irritated some of the book's reviewers; to me it is one of its strengths. Looking at photographs of human horrors is, in many ways, inescapably ambiguous, and to pretend otherwise is either arrogant or complacent. Readers of Susan Sontag's record of honest perplexity will be a little more self-conscious as they read the morning newspaper or watch the evening news -- not a mean feat if we agree with her, as we should, that all politics is concrete.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)