From the catalogue of Museum of Modern Arts Louisiana:
from Susan Sontag’s
To those who are sure that right is on one side, oppression and injustice on the other and that the fighting must go on, what matters is precisely who is killed and by whom. To an Israeli Jew, a photograph of a child torn apart in the attack on the Sbarro pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem is first of all a photograph of a Jewish child killed by a Palestinian suicide-bomber. To a Palestinian, a photograph of a child torn apart by a tank round in Gaza is first of all a photograph of a Palestinian child killed by Israeli ordnance. To the militant, identity is everything. And all photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions. During the fighting between Serbs and Croats at the beginning of the recent Balkan wars, the same photographs of children killed in the shelling of a village were passed around at both Serb and Croat propaganda briefings. Alter the caption, and the children’s deaths could be used and reused.
* In fact, 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. Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen. Who can forget the three color pictures by Tyler Hicks that The New York Times ran across the upper half of the first page of its daily section devoted to America’s new war, ‘A Nation Challenged’, on November 13, 2001? The triptych depicted the fate of a wounded Taliban soldier in uniform who had been found in a ditch by Northern Alliance soldiers advancing toward Kabul. First panel being dragged on his back by two of his captors – one has grabbed an arm, the other a leg – along a rocky road. Second: panel (the camera is very near): surrounded, gazing up in terror as he is being pulled to his feet. Third panel at the moment of death, supine with arms outstretched and knees bent, naked and bloodied from the waist down, being finished off by the military mob that has gathered to butcher him. An ample reservoir of stoicism is needed to get through the great newspaper of record each morning, given the likelihood of seeing photographs that could make you cry. And the pity and disgust that pictures like Hicks’s inspire should not distract you from asking what pictures whose cruelties whose deaths are not being shown.
Non-stop imagery (television, streaming video, movies) is our
surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the
deeper bite. Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single
image. In an era of information overload, the photograph provides a
quick way of apprehending something and a compact form for
memorizing it. The photograph is like a quotation, or a maxim or
proverb. Each of us mentally stocks hundreds of photographs, subject
to instant recall. Cite the most famous photograph taken during
Spanish Civil War, the Republican soldier ‘shot’ by Robed Capa’s
camera at the same moment he is hit by an enemy bullet, and
virtually everyone who has heard of that war can summon to mind the
grainy black-and- white image of a man in a white shirt with
rolled-up sleeves collapsing backward on a hillock his right arm
flung behind him as his rifle leaves his grip; about to fall, dead,
onto his own shadow.
* No moral charge attaches to the representation of these cruelties. Just the provocation: can you look at this? There is the satisfaction of being able to look at the image without flinching. There is the pleasure of flinching.
* Transforming is what art does but photography that bears witness to the calamitous and the reprehensible is much criticized if it seems ‘aesthetic’; that is, too much like art. The dual powers of photography – to generate documents and to create works of visual art – have produced some remarkable exaggerations about what photographers ought or ought not to do. Lately, the most common exaggeration is one that regards these powers as opposites. Photographs that depict suffering shouldn’t be beautiful, as captions shouldn’t moralize. In this view, a beautiful photograph drains attention from the sobering subject and turns it toward the medium itself, thereby compromising the picture’s status as a document. The photograph gives mixed signals. Stop this, it urges. But it also exclaims, What a spectacle!
* Photographs objectify: they turn an event or a person into something that can be possessed, and photographs are a species of alchemy, for all that they are prized as a transparent account of reality. Often something looks, or is felt to look, ‘better’ in a photograph indeed, it is one of the functions of photography to improve the normal appearance of things. (Hence, one is always disappointed by a photograph that is not flattering.) 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 more modern function: didactic, it invites an active response. For photographs to accuse, and possibly to alter conduct they must shock.
* But do people want to be horrified? Probably not. Still, there are pictures whose power does not abate, in part because you cannot look at them often. Pictures of the ruin of faces that will always testify to a great iniquity survived, at that cost: the faces of horribly disfigured First World War veterans who survived the inferno of the trenches; the faces melted and thickened with scar tissue of survivors of the American atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the faces cleft by machete blows of Tutsi survivors of the genocidal rampage launched by the Hutus in Rwanda – is it correct to say that people get used to these? Indeed, the very notion of atrocity, of war crime is associated with the expectation of photographic evidence. Such evidence is, usually, of something posthumous; the remains, as it were – the mounds of skulls in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the mass graves in Guatemala and El Salvador, Bosnia and Kosovo. And this posthumous reality is often the keenest of summations.
* And photographs echo photographs: it was inevitable that the photographs of emaciated Bosnian prisoners at Omarska, the Serb death camp created in northern Bosnia in 1992 would recall the photographs taken in the Nazi death camps in 1945. Photographs of atrocity illustrate as well as corroborate. Bypassing disputes about exactly how many were killed (numbers are often inflated at first), the photograph gives the indelible sample. The illustrative function of photographs leaves opinions, prejudices, fantasies, misinformation untouched. The information that many fewer Palestinians died in the assault on Jenin than had been claimed by Palestinian officials (as the Israelis had said all along) made much less impact than the photographs of the razed center of the refugee camp.
* Photographs of the suffering and martyrdom of a people are more than reminders of death, of failure; of victimization. They invoke the miracle of survival. To aim at the perpetuation of memories means, inevitably, that one has undertaken the task of continually renewing, of creating, memories – aided, above all, by the impress of iconic photographs. People want to be able to visit – and refresh – their memories. Now many victim peoples want a memory museum, a temple that houses a comprehensive, chronologically organized, illustrated narrative of their sufferings.
* Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing ‘we’ can do – but who is that ‘we’? – and nothing ‘they’ can do either – and who are ‘they’? – then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic. And it is not necessarily better to be moved. Sentimentality notoriously, is entirely compatible with a taste for brutality and worse. (Recall the canonical example of the Auschwitz commandant returning home in the evening, embracing his wife and children, and sitting at the piano to play some Schubert before dinner.) People don’t become inured to what they are shown – if that’s the right way to describe what happens – because of the 141 quantity of images dumped on them. It is passivity that dulls feeling. The states described as apathy, moral or emotional anesthesia, are full of feelings; the feelings are rage and frustration. But if we consider what emotions would be desirable, it seems too simple to elect sympathy. The imaginary proximity to the suffering inflicted on others that is granted by images suggests a link between the faraway sufferers – seen close-up on the television screen – and the privileged viewer that is simply untrue, that is yet one more mystification of our real relations to power. So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent – if not an inappropriate – response. To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering and may – in ways we might prefer not to imagine – be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a cask for which the painful stirring images supply only an initial spark.
* Consider two widespread ideas – now fast approaching the stature of platitudes – on the impact of photography. Since I find these ideas formulated in my own essays on photography – the earliest of which was written thirty years ago – I feel an irresistible temptation to quarrel with them. The first idea is that public attention is steered by the attentions of the media – which means, most decisively, images. When there are photographs, a war becomes ‘real’. Thus, the protest against the Vietnam Wear was mobilized by images. The feeling that something had to be done about the war in Bosnia was built from the attentions of journalists – ‘the CNN effect’, it was sometimes called – which brought images of Sarajevo under siege into hundreds of millions of living rooms night after night for more than three years. These examples illustrate the determining influence of photographs in shaping what catastrophes and crises we pay attention to, what we care about, and ultimately what evaluations are attached to these conflicts. The second idea – it might seem the converse of what’s just been described – is that in a world saturated, no, hyper-saturated with images, those that should matter have a diminishing effect: We become callous. In the end, such images just make us a little less able to feel, to have our conscience pricked. In the first of the six essays in On Photography (1977), I argued that while an event known through photographs certainly becomes more real than it would have been had one never seen the photographs, after repeated exposure it also becomes less real. As much as they create sympathy, I wrote, photographs shrivel sympathy. Is this true? I thought it was when I wrote it. I’m not so sure now. What is the evidence that photographs have a diminishing impact, that our culture of spectatorship neutralizes the moral force of photographs of atrocities?
* Citizens of modernity, consumers of violence as spectacle, adepts of possibility without risk, are schooled to be cynical about the possibility of sincerity. Some people will do anything to keep themselves from being moved. How much easier, from one’s chair, far from danger, to claim the position of superiority. In fact, deriding the efforts of those who have borne witness in war zones as ‘war tourism’ is such a recurrent judgment that it has spilled over into the discussion of war photography as a profession. The feeling persists that the appetite for such images is a vulgar or low appetite: that it is commercial ghoulishness. In Sarajevo in the years of the siege, it was not uncommon to hear, in the middle of a bombardment or a burst of sniper fire, a Sarajevan yelling at the photojournalists, who were easily recognizable by the equipment hanging round their necks, ‘Are you waiting for a shell to go off so you can photograph some corpses? Sometimes they were, though less often than one might imagine, since the photographer on the street in the middle of a bombardment or a burst of sniper fire ran just as much risk of being killed as the civilians he or she was tracking.
* In early 1994, the English photojournalist Paul Lowe, who had been living for more than a year in the besieged city, mounted an exhibit at a partly wrecked art gallery of the photographs he had been taking along with photographs he had taken a few years earlier in Somalia; the Sarajevans, though eager to see new pictures of the ongoing destruction of their city, were offended by the inclusion of the Somalia pictures, Lowe had thought the matter was a simple one. He was a professional photographer, and these were two bodies of work of which he was proud, For the Sarajevans, it was also simple. To set their sufferings alongside the sufferings of another people was to compare them (which hell was worse?), demoting Sarajevo’s martyrdom to a mere instance. The atrocities taking place in Sarajevo have nothing to do with what happens in Africa they exclaimed. Undoubtedly there was a racist tinge to their indignation – Bosnians are Europeans, people in Sarajevo never tired of pointing our to their foreign friends – but they would have objected too if, instead, pictures of atrocities committed against civilians in Chechnya or in Kosovo, indeed in any other country, had been included in the show. It is intolerable to have one’s own sufferings twinned with anybody else’s.
news about war is now disseminated worldwide does not mean that the
capacity to think about the suffering of people far away is
significantly larger. In a modem life – a life in which there is a
superfluity of things to which we are invited to pay attention – it
seems normal to turn away from images that simply make us feel bad.
Many more would be switching channels if the news media were to
devote more time to the particulars of human suffering caused by war
and other infamies. But it is probably not true that people are
responding less. That we are not totally transformed, that we can
turn away, turn the page, switch the channel, does not impugn the
ethical value of an assaults by images. It is not a defect that we
are not seared, that we do not suffer enough, when we see these
images. Neither is the photograph supposed to repair our ignorance
about the history and causes of the suffering it picks out and
frames. Such images cannot be more than an invitation to pay
attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalizations for
mass suffering offered by established powers. Who caused what the
picture shows? Who is responsible? Is it excusable? Was it
inevitable? Is there some state of affairs which we have accepted up
to now that ought to be challenged? All this, with the understanding
that moral indignation like compassion, cannot dictate a course of
action. The frustration of not being able to do anything about what
the images show may be translated into an accusation of the
indecency of regarding such images, or the indecencies of the way
such images are disseminated – flanked, as they may well be, by
advertising for emollients, pain relievers and SUVs. If we could do
something about what the images show, we might not care as much
about these issues.
Susan Sontag (1933-2004) American writer of fiction and non-fiction. A major participant in the critique of contemporary culture with several books and articles on for instance the metaphors of illness, photography, literary theory and feminism. Her texts on photography – On Photography from 1977 in particular – have had a great impact on the way we view the medium today. The above extract from Regarding the Pain of Others has been drawn up especially for this catalogue and is published with the kind permission of Susan Sontag’s heirs, litterary agent and publisher. Please also see the colophon of this book for further reference.