Published in 2003, Susan Sontag’s (1933 – 2004) brilliant essay on photography, journalism, and ethics will certainly make you think. Wars and atrocities have existed as long as humans have (duh), but in contemporary life we get a thoroughly up close view of human suffering. Viewed from a distance of, often, thousands of miles away, it’s easy to be outraged, but then forget about the incident within a week.
How do you react when you see some carnage, however? Outrage? A belief that war is wrong and pacifism is the way forward? Sontag challenges conventional notions and also takes on Virginia Woolf‘s book Three Guineas – whilst debunking a number of misconceptions about war, it’s also sad to note this was also the writer’s last work before her death.
Regarding the Pain of Others
Okay, so this was quite the riveting read. Sontag proved controversial throughout her life, including with some left wingers (which is the side she leaned towards, eh?). This essay concerns itself with the pain and suffering of others, and how this is projected onto millions of television screens and devices across the world.
The front cover of the book is adorned with Francisco Goya’s the Disasters of War. It’s a bleak image which matches the tone of what Sontag has to say, which is how people who look at images of war can’t really comprehend what war is like. Most of us, by now, have seen a lot of images of death and destruction, whether it’s from old pictures from WWII or footage from the Iraq war, but most of us haven’t (rather thankfully) had to go into pitched battle.
What Sontag explains is how photography, and images, are a historical record, but one which many of us can’t relate to in any great depth. Many legendary historical images, she explains, were staged to achieve greater effect. She also discusses the modern merits of photography and what it means to take images in a war zone.
The intrusive nature of photography, and journalism, appears to be her main aim. Having died in 2004, she missed the sudden onset of amateur journalism and photography brought about by social media and smartphones, but we’re sure she’d have been less than impressed by the relentless selfies and whatnot. Ultimately, though, this is simply a challenging piece of writing which is best delved into to make you think about the modern world. Give it a whirl.
Sontag was also a political activist and filmmaker, so she didn’t just aim directly at telling stories through the written word. A keen photographer, too, she was obviously in awe at the beauty and power of photography, whilst also concerned by its capacity to, essentially, distort history or tell a savage story.
Anyway, if you’d like to know more about the lady and her awesome brains, then a good place to start is this book and also Against Interpretation (1966) which includes some more challenging essays about culture and the nature of critics. Well worth a gander, dear reader.