Review of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others

Modern culture is a place of images. Television screens, digital cameras, computers, and other electronic devices all display moments in time that are frozen for people to view at home, at work, or while in transit. Susan Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2003) focuses specifically on images of war and the effects that these images have.

Throughout the book, Sontag talks about a wide variety of works to inform her discussion of images of war, including Virginia Woolf’s book Three Guineas (1938) which examines the roots of war, print works such as Goya’s series The Disasters of War (1863), films like J’accuse (1938) by French director Abel Gance, and the work of photographers such as Robert Capa and Sebastiao Salgado. Sontag begins her discussion by establishing, in the first three chapters, what it means to view an image, posing questions about who is looking, what it means to look, and the aftermath of viewing atrocities from the position of a spectator.

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Chapter four shifts the discussion to acknowledge the photographer and the significance (or insignificance) of his/her intentions when taking the photograph. While technically not the longest chapter (that distinction belongs to chapter two), chapter five is arguably the most dense as Sontag explores photographs as aesthetic works as well as their significance to memory. Chapters six and seven concentrate on the obligation and the impact photographs have on people as a group rather than as individuals, and chapters eight and nine complete the investigation by responding to questions raised in the initial chapters.

Ultimately, the questions Sontag explores throughout the book about the effects of photographs are statements she’s making about war. Looking at images approximates the experience, but it is from a distance. However, rather than pointing to that distance as a way of dismissing views of horrific images of war, rendering it a pointless act, Sontag says that the distance allows us to consider these atrocities; it gives us the space to think.

In order to understand what it means to look at images of people in pain, Sontag begins chapter one by examining the “we” who is looking at these images. Using Woolf’s Three Guineas as the starting point for her discussion, Sontag says that one cannot assume that everyone will have the same view of an image, for gender, experience, and culture will all affect the impression and that “no ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain” (7).

Ultimately, Sontag acknowledges, all the images of war found in photographs—mutilated bodies, destroyed buildings and landscape—may be used to “bring a portion of its reality” to people who have never had any experience of war (12), but she says that bringing this experience to people should not lead to the assumption that it will result in these people renouncing war. Chapter two specifically discusses how, while we have become spectators of calamities, it is misleading to equate a distant view of some information of war as knowledge of the experience of war.

We view images from a select portion but we would be mistaken to interpret these snapshots of some events of war as a comprehension of all the events of war. The way that people who have never experience war understand war is as the product of these constructed images, and the result of this is that we interpret direct experience, as people involved in the Twin Towers bombings indicated, as “surreal. ” Conversely, Sontag says when we look at a photograph of a moment of war, we are loathe to grant it merit from an aesthetic point of view.

Photographs represent a different, more objective, perspective than words, and we expect those representations to reflect a lack of contrivance, so in this sense, an amateur is as likely to capture the moment as a professional. During this discussion, Sontag contrasts literature with photographs in a way that, at times, risks moving into a different kind of argument. Chapter three begins an exploration of point of view, ultimately establishing that the point from which a photograph is viewed—whether voyeur, spectator, or photographer—recording torment does not end it.

Chapter four continues this thread by looking at the way photographs and photographers have the ability to capture death. Despite this ability, however, and no matter how many times we, as spectators, stare at the image of a face that is experiencing death, we may be fascinated but are no more enlightened by it. We continue to be removed from death just as war-making has become as removed as the camera (or the spectator) as bombs have now become directed toward their targets from across an ocean.

Chapter five may have been best broken up into two chapters because it covers a lot of ground, discussing the way images are transforming as well as the way they affect memory. The initial part of the chapter picks up the thread established in chapter three, of photographs as documents. As such, we do not like to admit aesthetic value to images of war because it turns the focus on the medium rather than its subject.

Returning to the bombing of the Twin Towers, Sontag points out that the closest that we would come to admitting beauty in some of the images, was to call it “surreal” (76). In fact, Sontag cites photographer Sebastiao Salgado’s work as an example of how we degrade photographs that are authentic if they appear to be too “cinematic. ” Salgado’s work captures the lack of power held by the most misfortunate groups and holds that large mass of powerless people up for the rest of the world to see.

Faced with such overwhelming suffering at a distance, people are pushed to recognize what they ought to feel while also feeling that suffering on a global level cannot be effectively addressed from a distance. Before this type of image was so widely available, it was thought that viewing the suffering of another helped bring the pain of reality closer and would more effectively link the viewer to the pain and thus spur him to action. However, the result, Sontag says, risks “mak[ing] the spectacular not spectacular” (80).

The chapter then shifts to the way photographs objectify; having a photograph of a thing is, in a sense, a way to own it. After a time, this ownership leads to familiarity so that ultimately these ugly images stop being shocking or rather the “shock” becomes familiar. There are some images, Sontag ascertains, that continue to shock as they are too horrific to be viewed often. These images are used as collective instruction; however, the problem is that what tends to survive in memory is only what is in the photograph—that frozen moment in time.

Thus, we are not aided in understanding, we are merely haunted by the image. Sontag continues this thread in chapter six as she says that we can look at an atrocious photograph out of a sense of obligation; however, viewing a photo does not necessarily mean that our reason will tell us that it is horrific, for something in our nature leads to a certain degree of excitement or even rapture when regarding the pain of others. This feeling of rapture is grounded in religious thinking—the idea that pain is linked to sacrifice and sacrifice to exaltation.

This is an interesting idea and one that I would have liked to see Sontag examine a bit more fully as much religious iconography from various sects contains images of suffering. Sontag then questions what is to be done with the type of knowledge we gain from viewing “faraway suffering” (99). It is human nature to see the suffering as an affirmation that is it not happening to them, but it also may be an acknowledgment of helplessness … of powerlessness.

This begins to bring the discussion back to the original point of who is the “we” when one, as an individual, is made to feel helpless. It is at this point of feeling helpless, Sontag says, that “one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic” (101). Chapter seven begins by delving into two ideas Sontag discovered while exploring photography for earlier works, most notably for On Photography (1977), widely considered to be a seminal work on the modern self. The first idea is that public attention by the media, which Sontag points out, means images made public.

Thus, the crisis given attention by the public is directed by the images that we are shown. If it is not broadcast on the television or the front page, it does not exist, essentially. The second idea is that we are so hyper-saturated with images that they have become diluted, so the images that, perhaps, should have significant effect, do not. Sontag does not suggest there is a remedy for this problem, for there is not going to be an established authority to carefully dole out the images that should matter.

The consequence of dilution is that reality is dead and spectacle has taken its place, leading to a tendency to dismiss the enthusiasm over spectacle as being provincial or low—as a way of commodifying specific atrocity. The final two chapters return to earlier discussions and tie up any loose threads. Chapter eight revisits the chapter five discussion of the way photographs haunt us and the chapter six assertion that we tend to dismiss the images that remind us of our powerlessness.

The images in the photographs, however, do ask that we pay attention—that we ask the questions that lie beneath the image. Sontag dismisses the reproach that watching powerless from a distance is bad by pointing out that watching while powerless from a closer proximity leads to the same result. Ultimately, she says, watching from a distance affords the space to think. Chapter nine takes up the literal space in which photographs are viewed, that is whether they are looked at in a personal photo album as opposed to a published book, or hanging on a wall in a museum rather than on the wall of a boutique.

Sontag alludes to the photographer’s intentions being irrelevant to this viewing process, but I think this point is irrelevant as this can be said for most forms of art. By focusing on the manner in which we experience war, Regarding the Pain of Others repeatedly invokes the images of war without reducing the discussion to the veracity of a conflict. The circumstances of the war are irrelevant; which side the figure in the photograph represents does not matter for we are meant to only recognize that we are outside the image, and therefore have a luxury that the subjects do not.

In the last two paragraphs of the book, Sontag allows those figures in the photographs talk to us, specifically telling us that “ ‘We”—this ‘we’ is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they [the figures of the photograph] went through—don’t understand” (125). That luxury is the fact that, Sontag says, we can look at those images; we can consider them and study them; we can feel so much about them that we stop feeling, but at last, we can put the photograph down or walk away from the posted image, and still, we do not know.