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Regarding the Pain of Others

Regarding the Pain of Others, by Susan Sontag. Picador, 2003. 131 pages.

In Christian Frei’s film on James Nachtwey, War Photographer, we see Nachtwey’s viewpoint, courtesy of a small digital camera mounted on top of Nachtwey’s own camera. We crouch behind an overturned car as Palestinian youths throw rocks and Molotov cocktails and duck rubber bullets, listening to Nachtwey speak in a cool, detached voice-over:

Why photograph war? … It’s occurred to me that if everyone could be there just once, to see for themselves what white phosphorous does to the face of a child, or what unspeakable pain is caused by the impact of a single bullet … then they would understand that nothing is worth letting things get to the point where that happens to even one person, let alone thousands. But everyone cannot be there, and that is why photographers go there, to show them, to reach out and grab them and make them stop what they’re doing and pay attention to what is going on, to create pictures powerful enough to overcome the diluting effects of the mass media and shake people out of their indifference. To protest, and by the strength of that protest, to make others protest.

This is the ideological basis of war photography, a notion that Susan Sontag convincingly eviscerates in the opening chapters of Regarding the Pain of Others, her examination of the ethics of war photography. Depending on its audience, Sontag points out, the same photograph may be a protest against war or a call to arms. What we want to believe we accept at face value; what challenges our cherished beliefs, we dismiss as a fabrication. We may be stirred to anger, or we may be stirred simply to turn the page and look up the hockey scores.

This problem is not, of course, limited to photography; it applies equally to television news, to print and online journalism, and above all to essays written for The New Yorker by writers who brand themselves as coolly critical iconoclasts.

But Sontag reserves her criticism for photography, dipping at times into the same disingenuous bag of tricks she used in On Photography. She asserts, for example, that snapshots taken by anyone in the street “may compete with the best, so permissive are the standards for a memorable, eloquent picture” — a claim that is easily refuted simply by looking at “the best.” And this unsupported (and unsupportable) statement then allows her to absolve painters of her criticism, by dint of “the artist’s skill of eye and hand.”

One reads, in short, with frequent shaking of the head, and occasional derisive snorts. But just as in On Photography, Sontag also makes many good arguments. Her complaint against photography as call to conscience, as expressed by Nachtwey and others, is impeccably argued.

Why concentrate this critique on photography, when other media are equally ineffective? Because, Sontag argues, “all images that display the violation of an attractive body are, to a certain degree, pornographic.” Looking at war photography is gawking at traffic accidents, hoping to see blood and bone.

But, of course, so is reading sensational news stories and watching television news. And whatever “the artist’s skill of eye and hand,” a painting depicting suffering remains art, an aesthetic object that we look at in a gallery without concern for the actual events of whatever battle it depicts. At least the photograph — presuming that it actually depicts “the violation of an attractive body,” as most war photographs do not — is presented as news.

And how is one to respond to war? Is it more effective to take a camera into Sarajevo and use it to argue for intervention, or to take up residence there for the purpose of staging Waiting for Godot by candlelight, as did Sontag? How many people were moved by the photography of Christopher Morris, who evacuated himself from the besieged city after having a breakdown? How many were moved by Sontag’s production of Godot?

There is a sense in Regarding the Pain of Others that Sontag is backing away from some of the claims of On Photography, that she discovered in Sarajevo what a glib and facetious stance is deconstruction in the face of destruction. In the concluding chapters, this becomes explicit, as she self-consciously points to two of On Photography‘s arguments and argues against them.

“To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism,” she admits. “It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in a rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment … some people will do anything to keep themselves from being moved.”

This epiphany arrives only when the Manhattan essayist goes to live in Sarajevo. It’s a pity that Sontag didn’t leave her rich part of the world behind more often.

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  1. March 8, 2010 at 2:25 pm

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