"Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else; they haunt us"

This book was first published in 2003 but couldn’t be more topical. Images of James Foley’s beheading at the hands of ISIS terrorists that briefly circulated via You Tube and Twitter this week are just the latest in a never-ending sequence of atrocities that raise ethical, and politically charged, questions about what the media should show in print, online or on TV.

It is human nature to be torn between fascination and repulsion when confronted by such images. The late Susan Sontag understood that deciding whether or not to view such graphic representations of man’s inhumanity to man makes us either spectators or cowards. Being neutral is not an option.

Regarding The Pain Of Others is both a companion piece and an updating to Sontag’s 1977 collection of essays On Photography. In it, she explores how still photographs come to influence and, in some cases, define the way we regard war and conflict.

Her starting point is the Three Guineas essay published in 1938 in which Virginia Woolf wrote of the horror and disgust she felt at seeing photographs of victims of the Spanish civil war. These  forced Woolf to conclude “War is an abomination, a barbarity, war must be stopped”. This outrage is perfectly understandable, even praiseworthy, but also naive.  Sontag asks pointedly: “Who believes today that war can be abolished?”

The cover of Sontag’s book is an image from the print series The Disasters of War by Francesco Goya which was a series designed to shock the viewer into taking action. Unlike photographs, these are not documents of real events but were intended to represent the type of horror that was routinely found on the battlefield. Nowadays, we don’t need artists to bring this kind of suffering to our attention. Images circulating online, often shot by amateurs, do this more than adequately and frequently leave little to the imagination.

Politicians are all too aware of the propaganda quality of photos or videos so censorship is the norm, usually couched in terms of protecting the public. As Sontag dryly observes, a judgement about ‘good taste’ is “always a repressive standard when evoked by institutions”.

Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag

Sontag is at her best when exposing the hypocrisy and double standards of the media and/or state when applied to stories of human suffering. For example, she notes that “The more remote or exotic the place, the more likely we are to have full frontal views of the dead and the dying”. 

Furthermore, she is not afraid to raise sensitive issues concerning her own nation. Why, she asks, is there a Holocaust Museum in Germany yet no Museum of the History of Slavery in America? In answer to her own question she observes : “To have a museum chronicling the great crime that was African slavery in the United States of America would be to acknowledge that the evil was here”.

So how should we to react to the plethora of terrible pictures in a humane and intelligent manner. Of course we can deplore the level of inhumanity but feeling sorry for the victims seems a woefully inadequate response not least because ,as Sontag notes, “compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action or it withers”.

I remember seeing a Simpsons episode in which Bart and his sister Lisa are watching a horror movie at the cinema. Lisa covers her eyes during the scary parts and is admonished by Bart who says “If you don’t watch the violence, you’ll never get desensitized to it”.

There are many who argue that this ‘desensitization’ makes us immune to human suffering but this is a point of view that Sontag refutes. People are able to distinguish between entertainment and real life violence but knowing how to respond to the horror raises many complex ethical and political issues .

One thing is sure, Susan Sontag had no time for those who merely recoil in disbelief when they see the latest outrages on the news: “Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood”.

I would rate Regarding The Pain Of Others as being as important and provocative a work as John Berger’s influential Ways Of Seeing from 1972. Some have criticised Sontag’s tendency to ask questions rather than to make definitive statements but I consider this a strength rather than a weakness.

One of her main aims is to show that pictures do not tell the whole story. Context is fundamental and the best way to respond to the images that bombard our senses on a daily basis is to engage with them and be prepared to confront the difficult questions they raise. Anything is better than being passive or impotent consumers.