Regarding the Pain of Others (Anglais) Broché – 1 février 2004
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In her revealing book, Regarding The Pain of Others, Susan Sontag examines the many issues associated with the photography of warfare, genocide, and atrocity. She discusses the history of such images, why they are produced, the importance of the viewer�s perspective, censorship, and many other related topics. In presenting her ideas, Sontag moves through a wide variety of history and literature ( Plato�s Republic, the Crimean War, the Khmer Rouge, the Nazi concentration camps, Bosnia). Oddly enough, there are no photos in the book. Many photographs that are referred to are described enough to understand what is being said, but the actual photos would have been a much better addition. (Most of the photos referenced are well known and can easily be located online.) It would have been revealing to know why no photos were included.
Many insights regarding war and photography are put forth. Some seemed like just well explained common sense, others were revealing. As a photographer, one concept that was mentioned, I found very profound. I�ve often wondered why photography hasn�t been replaced by video in the manner in which photography displaced painting. Although video certainly dominates the entertainment industry, photos haven�t disappeared and they continue to thrive. Sontag asserts that a photograph is the basic visual unit of memory. We remember in terms of photos much easier that entire video sequences. Certain events in our life, for example, the Apollo 11 moon landing, are recalled through the photographs we saw of those events. Although you will probably want a video of your wedding, it is certain there will be photos. For that reason, there will always be a place for photographs. In fact, you might have noticed during the recent coverage of the war in Iraq, many of the television news channels would play sequences of still photos. That is how we remember visually, in still images.
My only complaint is the book�s size, 126 pages, seemed small compared to the cost. Also the font and spacing are a bit large (remember that trick when writing school papers?). I had the feeling that some greedy marketing person was in the loop somewhere. Once I began to read though, my disappointment with book�s size went away. I recommend this thoughtful work and hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
If you experience any kind of discomfort with the constant coverage, then Sontag can offer some guidance.
She concentrates mainly on photographs rather than video, but this enables her to draw comparisons between the present and past conflicts. Her elegant potted history of war photography from the Crimean war to today is in some ways a rebuttal to the notion that the ubiquity of media renders modern war substantially different to historical war. If video footage defines our experience of war, photographs become our memories, and this is no less true now than in the 1860's.
If this sounds dry, then I do the book an injustice. First of all, Sontag is able to maintain page-turning readability without sacrificing scholarship. Second, even the most careful reading won't take more than 3 hours. Third, her arguments are forceful and in some cases passionate.
I found "regarding the pain of others" erudite, persuasive and strangely moving.
One of the most compelling features of this book is the opening, which uses an essay written by Virginia Woolf, "Three Guineas," to introduce the reader to the gruesome nature of war. It poses an intriguing question that will make you want to continue reading. Sontag addresses the topic with sincerity and looks beyond the "emblems of suffering" to address the ethics and psychology behind the photos.
Sontag is well-equipped to write this book, which has been researched thoroughly. She studied at major universities like Oxford and Harvard before writing collections of essays and several novels. One of her previous works, "On Photography," also addresses the impact cameras have had on our lives. Here, the focus on images of violence, hits home for me with several lingering questions: does the publication of violent photos encourage the public to oppose war or take a passive position? Do the images objectify the injured in a way that shapes our opinions of their life's value. It also built on my current interest of how photographs have been used in health, and in particular mental health. I am real fan of Sander Gilman's books, of which Face of Madness felt like a real gem but Seeing the Insane is definitely my favorite.
In her Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag rethinks this claim (even though it's now become received wisdom), suggesting that such photos in fact haunt us. True, our attraction to images of suffering can be prurient (Plato, in the Republic, was the first to catalog this human curiosity). The way in which a photo of suffering is framed, moreover, can transform it from an object of horror into one (primarily) of heroism. But notwithstanding these and other manipulations, photos of war victims remain what Sontag calls "emblems of suffering" that awaken us to the fact that the violence of warfare is very real indeed, and that we may be complicitous in it, notwithstanding the fact that, as "spectators," we are far removed from the imaged violence. Photographs shouldn't be "supposed to repair our ignorance about the history and causes of the suffering [they] pick out and frame." But they are effective "invitation[s] to pay attention" (p. 117). Viewing photographs of suffering is no substitute for hard thinking about war, murderous violence, and our moral responsibilities. But photos can spark and fuel such reflection (p. 103). For those of us who will never have firsthand experience of the horrors of war, this vicarious exposure can be a moral catalyst. That we can turn away from such photos does nothing to "impugn the ethical value of an assault by images" (p. 116).
Like all Sontag-authored extended essays, this one is so rich in ideas and insights that at times it seems (but ony, I believe, seems) to ramble. Along the way, Sontag discusses the history of war photography, the ethical dilemma of merely "looking at" atrocities rather than doing something about them, the French school of "the spectacle" founded by Guy Debord and made "respectacle" by Baudillard and Bataille. Chapter headings would be profoundly helpful here, as well as an occasional summary. But Sontag presumably wants to provoke thought in her readers, and hesitates to provide roadmaps.
Moreover, accompanying photographs would be helpful, especially since Sontag refers to a good baker's dozen to illustrate her arguments. The curious thing--and perhaps this was her point--is that any educated reader is likely to form an immediate memory image of the photo under discussion. We are, indeed, haunted by such photos.
An intriguing, genuinely thought-provoking book--and thought-provoking books are rare these days.