Literature and Medicine 22.2 (2003) 257-261
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Susan Sontag. Regarding the Pain of Others.New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. 131 pp. Clothbound, $20.00.
Susan Sontag has been, since the 1970s, one of the leading public literary figures in the United States. In addition to six novels, two film scripts, and a play, she has written eight books of essays. Two of the latter are widely cited meditations on medically relevant topics. Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, books that are taught to medical students in courses in the medical humanities and social sciences, illustrate the power of meaning to shape experiences of pain and suffering, often in ways that create problems for patients and practitioners.
Sontag also wrote one of the earliest and most penetrating and influential interpretations of photography in modern society, On Photography. In the early 1990s, during the horrific civil war in Bosnia, Sontag traveled to Sarajevo, from where she penned powerful pieces on the brutal effects of the fighting and the social forces that fueled its explosions of inhuman political violence, pieces that also burned with passionate criticism of the seeming incapacity of Europe, the United States, and international agencies to intervene effectively to stop the bloodshed, psychological trauma, and societal destruction.
All of these themes come together in a powerful and disturbing way in her brilliant new book, Regarding the Pain of Others. Sontag focuses on photographs of pain and suffering that are caused by "hellish events," especially war (p. 26). Photographs, she avers, unite opposites: objectivity and a special point of view. Sontag insists "to photograph is to frame, to frame is to exclude . . . it has always been possible for a photograph to misrepresent" (p. 46). Yet, in common-sense realism, "A photograph is supposed not to evoke but to show. That is why photographs, unlike handmade images, can count as evidence" (p. 47).
Sontag reminds us of Ernst Friedrich's Krieg dem Krieg! (War Against War!), a book of photographs from the First World War that was deemed unpublishable by German censors while the war was being fought because of the horror the photos portray, including close-ups of [End Page 257] soldiers with difficult-to-look-at gaping facial wounds. The purpose of this picture book was to shock readers with graphic evidence of the immense destructiveness of the Great War, a war in which 1.7 million Germans died. Here photography not only acknowledges social suffering but also offers a protest. That this protesting image and the many others used by antiwar activists offered no serious resistance to the gathering storm of fascism and Nazism that only a generation later would create a second world war, with at least fifty million deaths, reminds us soberingly of the limits of images to prevent the very real dangers in human experience. To be sure, Sontag also reminds us that images of horror and gore can feed a prurient voyeurism that many of us are capable of experiencing.
Sontag joins earlier critics of the famous war photographer Robert Capa's iconic photograph of the Spanish Civil War depicting a Republican soldier at the very instant he is killed by enemy fire. Other evidence suggests that this universally recognized photo was almost certainly staged and may have recorded a training exercise. Many of the most memorable pictures from the Second World War were indeed staged, including that quintessential picture of American military bravery that conjures patriotic sentiments each Veteran's Day, the photo of American servicemen raising the Stars and Stripes over Iwo Jima in the winter of 1945. Live television broadcasts, such as those by "embedded" reporters in the Iraq War, may prevent staging; still, the ability to frame and interpret make point of view as crucial to photography now as in the past, as anyone comparing images from Iraq on American and Arab television can attest.
One widely cited picture of human suffering that Sontag does not discuss, but that makes many of her points, is a picture that won the South African photojournalist, Kevin Carter, a Pulitzer Prize. 1...
In On Photography (1977), Susan Sontag presented what is arguably the most important discussion of the meaning of photography in the English language. Her work has been cited—attacked and acclaimed—ever since it began appearing as a series of essays in The New York Review of Books in the early 1970’s. In scattered essays and introductions to the work of others, she has extended her arguments about photography, but in Regarding the Pain of Others she has provided not only a major restatement of views but also a challenge to some of her earlier opinions. Although this book concentrates on reaction to photography, it is also, like On Photography, a deeply probing meditation on modern life.
Sontag begins her study of wartime photographs with a discussion of Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas (1938), a book which explores the origins of war by looking at a set of photographs depicting the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). In it, Woolf examines the different ways women and men react to war, especially as war has been a male enterprise. Would a man revolted by war have the same feelings as a woman like Woolf, who has neither the power nor the desire to make war? The man who writes to her about his antiwar feelings assumes that his reactions are the same as those of Woolf’s, but she does not believe that he can take his “we” (himself and Woolf) for granted.
Sontag does not so much challenge Woolf’s feminist position as suggest it is not comprehensive enough, for she notes that Woolf herself later lapses into the same use of “we.” “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain,” Sontag concludes. The distinction to be made, in other words, is not just between men’s and women’s reactions to the portrayal of war but also between the reality of war as others experience it and the perception of everyone else who only observes and responds to the images of war.
In fact, Woolf’s generalizations about what photographs of war mean are questionable, Sontag suggests: “To read in the pictures . . . only what confirms a general abhorrence of war is to stand back from an engagement with Spain as a country with a history. It is to dismiss politics.” The viewer who regards war as inevitable or a particular war as just will not regard the gruesome photographs as an antiwar argument at all. Indeed, the violence shown in photographs can be taken by some viewers as the consequence of heroic action, a fight for certain ideals, and an affirmation of human courage.
Sontag points out that many important antiwar collections of photographs were published between World War I and World War II, and although pacifists viewed the visual record as proving the horror of war and were spurred on to create agreements between countries to outlaw war, horrified responses to these images could not ultimately overcome the forces of history that Woolf ignored in Three Guineas. As the politics of an era change, so do the meaning of photographs. Thus Sontag concludes that in the “current political mood, the friendliest to the military in decades, the pictures of wretched hollow-eyed GIs that once seemed subversive of militarism and imperialism may seem inspirational. Their revised subject: ordinary American young men doing their unpleasant, ennobling duty.”
Photographs not only change meaning in terms of the historical context in which they are viewed but they also share a problematic status because of their form of publication. Thus Robert Capa’s famous photograph of a Spanish Republican soldier at the moment of death appeared in Life magazine across from a full-page advertisement for Vitalis, a hair cream, illustrated with photographs of men with shimmering hair. Two worlds collide in these side-by-side photographs, with one image no more important than the other. How can Capa’s photograph—in spite of its shocking power—retain a hold on viewers in a world that is bombarded with the reproduction and diffusion of images?
There is a further, disturbing ambiguity in the Capa photograph that Sontag cannot ignore. It has been alleged that the photograph is, in fact, just a shot taken during a training exercise. In other words, like many other...
(The entire section is 1746 words.)