Regarding the Pain of Others

Susan Sontag makes many compelling arguments in Regarding the Pain of Others. In her writing, she interrogates the role and effect (war) photography have on how the viewer understand, consume, and sympathize with the pain of others. 

She writes, "And photographs of the victims of war are themselves a species of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus." (p.8) This line resonate most (with me) in seeking to understand the "difficulty of communication" raised as a point in answering how to prevent war (in the beginning of chapter 1). 

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

(Photo: Robert Capa)

(Photo: Robert Capa)

Sontag talks here about the impact of images — more specifically about how it impacts one whose experience with war is a product of imagery. She continues, "Photographs have the kind of authority over imagination today, which the printed word had yesterday, and the spoken word before that. They seem utterly real." (p. 22) What is mostly real about these photos perhaps is how real they become for the viewer; the shock value. She uses Robert Capa's famous photograph—taken during the Spanish Civil War—of the Republican soldier being hit by an enemy bullet as an example. The impact of this grainy black and white photo is quite captivating yet disturbing. In the words of Sontag, "it is expected to arrest attention, startle, and surprise."

(Photo: Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

(Photo: Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

The photo above captures a demonstrator throwing a tear gas container back towards tactical officers working to break up a group of bystanders during the height of the Ferguson Riot, August 13, 2014. I chose this image because the impact of it is simply powerful and loud — that a (presumably) young black male is fighting back against police brutality and the militarization of police in Ferguson, MO. We didn't see the tear gas launched at the subject in this photo but his response is what captivates the eye. 't the words of Sontag, "this photo bores witness to the real." It is resistance. It is rage. It is moving!

To remember is, more and more, not to recall a story but to be able to call up a picture. (p. 70) 

Sontag writes here about the problem of people remembering images and not stories. There is a significant narrative and life behind the photo, which deserves to be remembered just as much as the photo. Without that context, photos lose its complexity and become what folks remember as the event. "Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand," Sontag writes. "Narratives can make us understand, but Photographs do something else: they haunt us.  For example, she uses a photo by Ron Haviv of a Serb militiaman casually kicking a drying woman in the head. Sontag notes that photo doesn't tell us much else other than what is present: "that war is hell" and that people are dying.

(Photo: Ron Haviv)

(Photo: Ron Haviv)

(Photo: Tyler Hicks, The New York Times)

(Photo: Tyler Hicks, The New York Times)

Similarly to this photo, I chose a photo captured by Tyler Hicks of a man who was beaten by a crowd of pro-democracy protesters in Katmandu after being suspected as an undercover security agent. The photo is telling yet not enough for the viewer to fully understand what is happening. 

 

"Certain photographs—emblems of suffering, such as the snapshot of the little boy in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, his hands raised, being herded to the transport to a death camp—can be used like memento mori, as objects of contemplation to deepen one's sense of reality; as secular icons, if you will." 

(Photo: Franz Konrad)

(Photo: Franz Konrad)

Sontag describes this photo as painful suffering and I connected with it immediately because I can relate to emotion captured in this photo and to the effects of systemic violence on such a personal level. When I first saw this photo, I immediately saw a parallel image in my mind of protestors in Ferguson, MO, not only surrounding in the name of Mike Brown saying "Hands Up, Don't Shoot," but also pleading for their lives. The seriousness and sincerity is almost too palpable

(Photo: Joe Raedle, Getty Images News)

(Photo: Joe Raedle, Getty Images News)