Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others critiques photographic images of war and human suffering. Sontag traces the development of such images in photography, beginning with examples of photographs carefully staged to elicit a specific response from the viewer. Every photograph has a context, an interaction that occurs between the photographer, the victim(s) in the photograph, and the viewer. Sontag explores the nature of the interaction. Her argument is three-fold.
Sontag argues once it is taken, the photograph is out of the control of the photographer and the victim(s) in the photograph. It can be used to promote a political agenda that may or may not align with the photographer’s intention. A photograph can be used in a variety of ways depending on the context and caption. Sontag cites examples of the same photographs that have been used to advocate diametrically opposed political points of view.
Sontag also addresses the impact on the viewer of photographs depicting other people’s pain. She argues images of other people’s pain, misery, and death fascinate us, but we recoil in horror if the image is too close to home. To put it simply, there is an “othering” that occurs. We can tolerate images chronicling the impact of war and disaster on humans as long as the emaciated flesh and mangled corpses belong to people of color and as long as the violence occurs in distant lands. The same images closer to home are considered callous and insensitive.
The third point Sontag explores is whether a constant bombardment of images evidencing man’s inhumanity to man can desensitize us to violence. Our feelings may alternate between compassion, anger, guilt, relief for being spared, or indifference. In any case, constant exposure to the suffering of others may eventually cause us to perceive acts of violence as normal. We see the image and are momentarily impacted by it. We then shrug our shoulders, turn the page, and go on about our business.
Throughout the pages of her book, Sontag implicitly invites us to explore our own reaction to images of violence. What does a photograph of others’ suffering mean? What is it saying to us? Does a graphic illustration of the cruelties and violence humans are capable of shock us? Does the context in which the image is displayed impact our response? Does the ubiquitous availability of images depicting human on human violence increase our tolerance for human suffering?
Although she does not provide ready-made, facile answers to the complex issues she raises, Sontag’s observations force us to interrogate the images for ourselves as well as our response to them. I assume that is exactly what she set out to do.
A thoughtful and thought-provoking read. Highly recommended.