Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag (victor g.)
Title: Regarding the Pain of Others
Pub Date: 2003
Length: 131 pgs.
Sontag’s project in Regarding the Pain of Others is to do just that, regard the pain of others; or more precisely how we (me, you, the intellectual, those safe from harm Americans, the West, everything that is not the abjected other). Sontag, for the most part, employs photography in her elucidation of how it is exactly the pain of others is taken in, consumed, and likewise, what effects, if any, it has upon the viewer. This text is not an analysis in the strictest academic sense. It is more of an attempt by Sontag herself to come to grips with the prevalence of the world’s atrocity so commonplace today because of photography.
Regarding the Pain of Others pores over representations of atrocity from Goya’s The Disaster of War to the photographic documentation of the American Civil War, black lynchings in the South, Nazi death camps, to current day images of Bosnia, Serbia, Rwanda, and New York City on 9/11.
Sontag endeavors to answer crucial questions regarding not just about the intersection between spectator and representations of atrocity (war), but with the spectator and war itself. The following are a few of the key ideas that Sontag proposes:
-Grisly photographs confirm peoples’ previously held opinions – to this she employs the propagandist photography used by either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “To the militant, identity is everything.” Depending on which side you are on, it is simply a matter of identifying with the victim and knowing who is culpable, thus perpetuating a cycle of violence goaded on by images.
-Intentions are not inherent in photography, meaning is situational and in flux – this is in keeping with the previous key idea. The photograph itself is capable of “speaking” for itself only so much. It requires an interpreter. And it is the agenda of this interpreter that the photograph assumes. The photograph itself has no agenda, it takes on the one of who is interpreting for it. Photographs of New York City on 9/11 can be viewed as an unwarranted and heinous assault upon the homeland by forces of evil. They may also be viewed as a striking back, justifiable retribution for long running penetrative American foreign policies.
-Photographs do not assist in the comprehension of a situation, that is up to writers to create narratives that help in understanding
-Meanings from photos are free floating, and can only be grounded by words
These two ideas of Sontag are somewhat contradictory to what has been previously been thought of a photograph capable of providing a sense of its own meaning. However, she is not entirely off the mark, photographic meanings are free floating, they do take on whatever definitions the spectator wishes to engender it with. And yet, by simply saying that the meanings can be grounded by simply attaching words to it, is rather naïve. Words themselves, unless they are stating the “facts” of the photograph, their meaning in turn, is just as suspect as the free floating meanings of the photograph, and by no means assisting in the comprehension of the photograph.
-The photograph is not an objective mirror, but an expressive medium capable of portraying multiple realities.
This text is useful in that it can serve as a primer for a “better” understanding of not only representations of atrocity, but in comprehending the after-shocks, the aftermath of viewing such atrocities within the spectator. What is roused within the spectator? Is she compelled to action? Or is he given to the shrugging of the shoulders because it is simply a photograph? How can we now think of the meanings and uses for these images? And of course to an extent, and Sontag’s underlying premise for this text, how do we come to think of war?
Regarding the Pain of Others closes with a description of Jeff Wall’s “Dead Troops Talk (A Vision After an Ambush of a Red Armey Patrol near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter, 1986)” A made up scene of a real event, this photograph, as proposed by Sontag, does not attempt to offer an explanation. The dead and (just slightly) living characters within the photograph are either incapable or unwilling to provide the spectator with any reading of themselves. As Sontag writes, “These dead are supremely uinterested in the living: in those who took their lives; in witnesses—and in us. Why should they seek our gaze? What would they have to say to us? “We”—this “we” is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through—don’t understand. We don’t get it.”
This is a contemporary text, very much in keeping with the texts Sontag herself cites: Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory Through the Camera’s Eye, Barbara Zelizer; Body Horror: Photojournalism, Catastrophe, and War, John Taylor; A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis, David Rieff.
Much like On Photography, this text would be a prudent choice in not only understanding war photography per se, but such topics as the spectacle that is made of conflict, those forced to endure relocation, right on to the suburban prime-time television viewer.