Regarding the Pain of Others; Susan Sontag


[Photographs] create the illusion of consensus. P. 5

[Virginia] Woolf professes to believe that the shock of such [war] pictures cannot fail to unite people of good will. P. 6

… sympathizers… those only nominally concerned about… P. 6

The photographs are a means of making ‘real’ (or ’more real’) matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore. P. 6

… the photographs say, this is what it’s like. P. 6

[Woolf} is saying, we are not monsters, we are members of the educated class. Our failure is one of imagination, of empathy: we have failed to hold this reality in mind. P. 7

… all photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions. P. 9

… images offering evidence that contradicts cherished pieties are invariably dismissed as having been staged for the camera. P. 9, 10

… there are many uses of the innumerable opportunities a modern life supplies for regarding – at a distance, through the medium of photography – other people’s pain. … [including] the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen. P.11, 12

… the pity and disgust that pictures… inspire should not distract you from asking what pictures, whose cruelties, whose deaths are not being shown. P.12

… for a long time some people believed that if the horror could be made vivid enough, most people would finally take in the outrageousness… P.12

… did not make the mistake of supposing that heartrending, stomach-churning pictures would simply speak for themselves. P. 13

… each photograph has an impassioned caption… P.14

Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience… P. 16

… those professional, specialized tourists known as journalists. P. 16

Awareness of the suffering that accumulates… happening elsewhere is something constructed. Principally in the form that is registered by cameras, it flares up, is shared by many people, and fades from view. P.17

The understanding of war among people who have not experienced war is now chiefly a product of the impact of these images. P. 19

Something becomes real… by being photograhed. P.19

‘It felt like a movie’ seems to have displaced teh way survivor’s of a catastrophe used to express the short-term unassimilability of what they had gone through: ’It felt like a dream.’ P.19

… when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite. Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image… the photograph provides a quick way of apprehending something and a compact form for memorizing it. P.19

It is a shocking image, and that is the point. Conscripted as part of journalism, images were expected to arrest attention, startle, surprise. P. 20

… shock has become a leading stimulus of consumption and source of value. P.20

Photographs, Woolf claims, ‘are not an argument; they are simply a crude statement of fact addressed to the eye.’ P. 23

For the photography of atrocity, people want the weight of witnessing without the taint of artistry, which is equated with insincerity or mere contrivance. P. 23

By flying low, artistically speaking, such pictures are thought to be less manipulative – all widely distributed images of suffering now stand under that suspicion – and less likely to arouse facile compassion or identification. P. 24

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… the large role that chance (or luck) plays in the taking of pictures.… P. 25

… photographs represent the view of somone… P. 28

In a system based on the maximal reproduction and diffusion of images, witnessing requires the creation of star witnesses, renowned for their bravery and zeal in in procuring important, disturbing photographs. P. 30

In the wake of the new mainstream liberal consensus about the tractability of acute social problems, issues of the photographer’s own livelihood and independence moved to the foreground. P. 31

… Magnum’s charter… spelled out an enlarged, ethically weighted mission for photojournalism: to chronicle their own time… as fair-minded witnesses free of chauvenistic prejudices. P. 31

The photographer’s intentions do not determine the meaning of the photograph, which will have its own career, blown by the whims and loyalties of the diverse communities that have use for it. P. 35

The sufferings most often deemed worthy of representation are those understood to be the product of wrath, divine or human. P. 36

No moral charge attaches to the representation of these cruelties. Just the provocation: can you look at this? P. 37

… each image [from Goya’s prints], captioned with a brief phrase lamenting the wickedness of the invaders and the monstrousness of the suffering they inflicted, stands independently of the others. The cumulative effect is devasting. P. 40

The account of war’s cruelties is fashioned as an assault on the sensibility of the viewer. P. 40

While the image, like every image, is an invitation to look, the caption, more often than not, insists on the difficulty of doing just that. P. 40

… to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude. P. 40

A photograph is supposed not to evoke but show. P. 41

Everyone is a literalist when it comes to photographs. P. 41

The frankest representations… are of those who seem most foreign, therefore least likely to be known. With subjects closer to home, the photographer is expected to be more discreet. P. 55

New demands are made on reality in the era of cameras. The real thing may not be fearsome enough, and therefore needs to be enhanced; or reenacted more convincingly. P. 57

During the Vietnam era, war photography became normatively, a criticism of war. P. 58

These sights [of whole families of indigent villagers dying of AIDS] carry a double message. They show a suffering that is outrageous, unjust, and should be repaired. The confirm that this is the sort of thing which happens in that place. The ubiquity of those photographs, and those horrors, cannot help but nourish belief in the inevitability of tragedy in the benighted or backward – that is poor-parts of the world. P. 64

‘When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.’ P. 65

… to represent war in words or pictures requires a keen, unflinching detachment. P. 66

The concern is that the images to be devised won’t be sufficiently upsetting: not concrete, not detailed enough, Pity can entail a moral judgment if, as Aristotle maintains, pity is considered to be the emotion that we owe only to those enduring undeserved misfortune. P. 67

Leonardo is suggesting that the artist’s gaze be, literally, pitiless. The image should appall, and in that terribilita lies a challenging kind of beauty. P. 67

… to find beauty in war photographs seems heartless. P. 67

Photographs tend to transform, whatever their subject; and as in image something may be beautiful – or terrifying, or unberrable, or quite bearable – as it is not in real life. P.68

Transforming is what art does, but photography that bears witness to the calamitous and the reprehensible s much criticized if it seems ‘aesthetic’; that is, too much like art. P. 68

A photographer [Salgado] who specializes in world misery… has been the principal target of the new campaign against the inauthenticity of the beautiful. P. 69

But the problem is in the pictures themselves, not how and where they are exhibited: in their focus on the powerless, reduced to their powerlessness. P. 70

Making suffering loom larger, by globalizing it, may spur people to feel they ought to ‘care’ more. It also invites them to feel that the suffererings and misfortunes are too vast, too irrevocable, too epic to be much changed by any local political intervention. With a subject conceived on this scale, compassion can only flounder – and make abstract. P.70

It used to be thought, when the candid images were not common, that showing something that needed to be seen, bringing a painful reality closer, was bound to goad viewers to feel more. In a world in which photography is brilliantly at the service of consumerist manipulations, no effect of a photograph of a doleful scene can be taken for granted. As a consequence, morally alert photographers and idealogues of photography have become increasingly concerned with the issues of exploitation… and of rote ways of provoling feeling. P. 71

… the spectacular is very much part of the religious narratives by which suffering, throughout most of Western history, has been understood. P.71

Photographs objectify: They turn an event or a person into something that can be possessed. P.72

… it is one of the functions of photography to improve the normal appearance of things… Beautifying is one classic operation of the camera, and it tends to bleach out a moral response to what is shown. Uglifying showing something at its worst, is a modern function: didactic, it invites an active response. For photographs to accuse, and possibly to alter conduct, they must shock. P. 72

Does shock have term limits?… Shock can become familiar. Shock can wear off. Even if it doesn’t, one can not look. People have means to defend themselves against what is upsetting… one can become habituated to the horror of certain images. P.73

They weep, in part, because they have seen it many times. People want to weep. Pathos, in the form of a narrative, does not wear out. But do people want to be horrified? Probably not. Still, there are pictures whose power does not abate, in part because one cannot look at them often. P.74

… posthumous reality is often the keenest of summations. P. 75

Photographs of atrocity illustrate as well as corroborate… The illustrative function of photographs leaves opinions, prejudices, fantasies, misinformation untouched. P. 75

… atrocities that are not secured in our minds by well-known photographic images, or of which we simply have had very few images… P. 75

Photographs lay down routes of reference, and serve as totems of causes: sentiment is more likely to crystallize around a photograph than around a verbal slogan. P. 76

Poster-ready photographs… are the visual equivalent of sound bites. P. 77

The point of creating public respositorities for these and other relics is to ensure that the crimes they depict will continue to figure in people’s consciousness. P. 77

Photographs of the suffering and martydom of people are more than reminders of death, of failure, of victimization. They invoke the miracle of survival. P. 78

To have a museum chronicling the great crime that was African slavery in the United States of America would be to acknowledge that the evil was there. Americans prefer to picture evil that was there… P. 79

The problem is not that the people remember through photographs, but that they remember only the photographs. This remembering through photographs eclipses other forms of understanding, and remembering. P. 79

To remember is, more and morek, not to recall a story but to be able to call up a picture. P. 80

Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand. Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us. P. 80

What is the point of exhibiting these pictures? To awaken indignation? To make us feel ‘bad’; that is, to appall and sadden? To help us mourn? Is looking at such pictures really necessary, given that these horrors lie in a past remote enough to be beyond punishment? Are we better for seeing these images? Do they actually teach us anything? Don’t they rather just confirm what we already know (or want to know)? P. 82

… images of the repulsive can also allure. P. 85

… we also have an apetite for sights of degradation and pain and mutilation. Surely the undertow of this despised impulse must also be taken into account when discussing the effect of atrocity pictures. P. 86, 87