on October 18, 2009
Regarding the Pain of OthersSusan Sontag has presented us with a challenge. She asks us to examine the photographs of war, unimaginable suffering and death. (To catch a death actually happening and embalm it for all time is something only cameras can do, and pictures taken by photographers out in the field of the moment of (or just before) death are among the most celebrated and often reproduced of war photographs...There can be no suspicion about the authenticity of what is being shown...)Susan Sontag. This book, often as unrelenting in its prose as the exposing camera lens, discusses the consequences of looking at human suffering and degregation brought about by atrocities at a distance through photography and how it is different for (us) as onlookers than any other artform. (Images have been reproached for watching suffering at a distance, as if it were some other way of watching. But watching up close-without the mediation of an image-is still just watching.)Susan Sontag. She also discusses with length the causes and gender of war itself. The challenge is to become conscious, informed and intelligent viewers of what we see as it sometimes taps the very depths of our humanity and its many failings of sympathy and compassion.
on May 28, 2004
I found this a difficult book to read.The author uses long meandering sentences frequently enough to distract attention;and her thesis is unclear.The author also tends to make generalising statements,with no evidence to back the statements up.The book does not say anything new;I was disappointed overall.
on May 20, 2004
I don't know why this book isn't at the top of Amazon's Susan Sontag's list of publications. It was very hard to put it down until I got to the end. It could use another chapter on the type of photos being shown from Iraq (a second edition?) and I'm sure her comments would be very interesting. What I really like about the book is, with the exception of the cover, there are no illustrations to distract us from what she's trying to get across and what she's trying to get across is, as she states, illustrations--sketches, paintings, photos--do not help us, unlike the written word, to UNDERSTAND, not only to feel/observe.
on March 22, 2004
And that's about it. She's a racist with a brilliant mind, and therefore most adept at propoganda. This book, as well as the rest of her work, to some extent and another profoundly reveals this.
on October 26, 2003
It is photography, beginning with the Civil War, that almost exclusively provides us a window to the suffering of others. Ms. Sontag's essay explores the capacity of the photographic arts to convey such suffering. Throughout, she identifies photographs that have seemed to distill the image of war in a particularly unforgettable way, that is, to imprint elements of suffering, both uniquely associated with a specific war at a specfic point in time and more generally attributable to war. Although she refers to her book's "argument," it seems more precise to maintain that, like the subject of her essay, her aim here is to assess the power and the limits of photography to convey pain to those viewers who enjoy the luxury of being detached from the specific suffering so depicted. Stated differently, her essay itself develops an "image" of the art of photography and its effect on spectators who enjoy various degrees of detachment from images before them.
Having been one of the more "provincial" spectators she describes in her book, Regarding the Pain of Others appears to provide an excellent source to discover particularly powerful photographs, at least as commended by Ms. Sontag who has been seriously contemplating the "war image" in all its manifestations for at least two decades. It would have been helpful for the book to have included some of the examples she describes. (This is Art History without the art.) There are times, too, when she seems to forget that suffering is not a stranger in the so-called developed, modern world. The haunting images, captured by photographers on 9/11, of men and women jumping to certain death from the upper floors of the World Trade Center to avoid consumption in the inferno that it had become, will forever retain the sad distinction of being among this century's first "representations" of the continuing horror of suffering in war.
on July 3, 2003
In my experience, a non-fiction book on history, sociology or politics generally does one of two things. It reports and/or it opines. However, it seemed to me that this little essay, though making a number of interesting observations about war and photography, did neither. Indeed, virtually the whole time, I kept waiting for her ultimate opinion on the issue to come out. By the end, I never saw it. And yet, in the very first sentence of her acknowledgments (and elsewhere therein), she refers to "the argument of this book." Even after reading the laudatory reviews of this book, I couldn't tell what others perceived the "argument" to be either. I am assuming that her "argument" has something to do with the effect that photography has on war. For example if I had to guess (and if it turns out that I am totally off base, it wouldn't shock me), it may be that too many photos of the suffering of others may numb the senses to it and thus should be discouraged. Or maybe, she is making the exact opposite "argument"--that we don't see enough such photos and thus people can't really appreciate how horrible war is. In addition, whatever her argument, is she suggesting that we as a people do something different than what we do now, or is she simply offering neutral observations on the way of the world as it exists now? I have no doubt that others smarter than I could answer all of these questions, but I would have appreciated a little synopsis of her self-described "argument" so I knew what it was.
on May 21, 2003
In this insightful essay, Sontag springboards from an analysis of "Three Guineas" by Virginia Woolf into a discussion about the effects of photography and televised imagery on modern culture and ideas about war and violence. Weaving excerpts from works by Leonardo da Vinci, Plato, Wordsworth, and others, including her own previous work "On Photography", she leads readers on a journey into our own psyches and ways of thinking and viewing the world, and pushes us to examine with conscious knowledge the usage of images. I was especially taken with the idea that it is entirely human to turn away from these pictures of suffering, which are often used as a form of entertainment in the modern world. Sontag rightfully doesn't offer answers or platitudes, but instead indicates a welcoming of our own humanity's foibles as a way to deal with the obligations of conscience and the limits of sympathy.
on April 27, 2003
I couldnï¿½t help but wonder what Susan Sontag would have to say about a friend of mine, and the manner in which he gets his daily news. First thing, each day, when he gets to work, he logs into his computer, surfs to Yahoo, and looks at a slide show of all the top news photos for the day. He never reads any articles. At most he reads a caption or two, but mainly he looks at the pictures. How many others perceive the world through Yahoo slideshows? Itï¿½s a bit scary. I think Sontag would agree that many people view the world primarily through the images they receive through the media.
In her revealing book, Regarding The Pain of Others, Susan Sontag examines the many issues associated with the photography of warfare, genocide, and atrocity. She discusses the history of such images, why they are produced, the importance of the viewerï¿½s perspective, censorship, and many other related topics. In presenting her ideas, Sontag moves through a wide variety of history and literature ( Platoï¿½s Republic, the Crimean War, the Khmer Rouge, the Nazi concentration camps, Bosnia). Oddly enough, there are no photos in the book. Many photographs that are referred to are described enough to understand what is being said, but the actual photos would have been a much better addition. (Most of the photos referenced are well known and can easily be located online.) It would have been revealing to know why no photos were included.
Many insights regarding war and photography are put forth. Some seemed like just well explained common sense, others were revealing. As a photographer, one concept that was mentioned, I found very profound. Iï¿½ve often wondered why photography hasnï¿½t been replaced by video in the manner in which photography displaced painting. Although video certainly dominates the entertainment industry, photos havenï¿½t disappeared and they continue to thrive. Sontag asserts that a photograph is the basic visual unit of memory. We remember in terms of photos much easier that entire video sequences. Certain events in our life, for example, the Apollo 11 moon landing, are recalled through the photographs we saw of those events. Although you will probably want a video of your wedding, it is certain there will be photos. For that reason, there will always be a place for photographs. In fact, you might have noticed during the recent coverage of the war in Iraq, many of the television news channels would play sequences of still photos. That is how we remember visually, in still images.
My only complaint is the bookï¿½s size, 126 pages, seemed small compared to the cost. Also the font and spacing are a bit large (remember that trick when writing school papers?). I had the feeling that some greedy marketing person was in the loop somewhere. Once I began to read though, my disappointment with bookï¿½s size went away. I recommend this thoughtful work and hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
When Susan Sontag prepared and wrote her newest book REGARDING THE PAIN OF OTHERS, she probably did not know that at the time of its release to the public the world would once again be at war. Sontag remains one of our more inportant American philosphers and commentators and this book addresses the representaton of pain, war, agony, and injustice as captured by painters from Velasquez, Goya, Callot and others to photographers Matthew Brady, Capa, Bourke-White et al. While she sees it as the responsibility for these people to capture the horrors of war in order that 'we' as observors will be informed and thus never allow such things to continue, she also now addresses how important it is for us to not have these images edited from public consumption - a very current feature that we are now seeing (or not seeing) in the TV and newspaper versions of the Iraqi war. Sontag gives evidence that some of the more sensational photographs from the Civil War and the Vietnam War were actually staged; corpses were added or altered or assasinations were set for the photojournalist much as the paintings of the 19th century were modified to gain impact. She shows that the horrors if the Nazi concentration camps were best captured by the untrained camera rather than the images made famous by Bourke-White et al, manipulating the light and position of vantage to play on the message instead of simply reporting it.
She stimulates our anger when she reports such incidences during the Gulf War as "American television viewers weren't allowed to see footage acquired by NBC (which the network then declined to run) of what superiority could wreak: the fate of thousands of Iraqi conscripts who, having fled Kuwait City at the end of the war, on February 27, were carpet bombed with explosives, napalm, radioactive DU (depleted uranium)rounds, and cluster bombs as they headed north, in convoys and on foot, on the road to Basra, Iraq - a slaughter notoriously described by one American oficer as a 'turkey shoot'". She shows that atrocities in foreign places are 'more acceptable' to view than cloistered photographic documents of our own history of the abuse of slaves, the poor, AIDS victims here in this country. We can construct Museums for the reminders of the German atrocities of genocide, crematoriums, starvation etc, but we do not have a single Museum to remind us of the American abuse of African American slaves (lynchings, beatings, prisons etc).
There are many quotes to highlight; "It is because a war, any war, doesn't seem as if it can be stopped that people become less responsive to the horrors. 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."
Sontag urges us to be more in tune, more involved, more sensitive to the visual images that report the pain of others. "We can't imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes. Can't understand, can't imagine. That's what every soldier, and every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire, and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby, stubbornly feels. And they are right." This is the powerful last paragraph in this intensely moving book. It is a shame that some of the photographs and paintings to which she refers could not have been inserted in this book, but even without the visuals, this is a book that reveals myriad secrets and truths. Highly recommended reading.
on April 1, 2003
As I watch the constant war show on CNN, am I a spectator experiencing war vicariously as entertainment, and if so, should I not be watching? On the other hand, if I choose not to watch am I hiding from reality and turning my back on the soldiers who after all represent me?
If you experience any kind of discomfort with the constant coverage, then Sontag can offer some guidance.
She concentrates mainly on photographs rather than video, but this enables her to draw comparisons between the present and past conflicts. Her elegant potted history of war photography from the Crimean war to today is in some ways a rebuttal to the notion that the ubiquity of media renders modern war substantially different to historical war. If video footage defines our experience of war, photographs become our memories, and this is no less true now than in the 1860's.
If this sounds dry, then I do the book an injustice. First of all, Sontag is able to maintain page-turning readability without sacrificing scholarship. Second, even the most careful reading won't take more than 3 hours. Third, her arguments are forceful and in some cases passionate.
I found "regarding the pain of others" erudite, persuasive and strangely moving.