In Regarding the Pain of Others Sontag lays out her stall as to why we respond as we do to photographs of war, atrocity, mutilation and genocide.
Spanning almost 100 years of photography, her arguments run at a pace, citing examples in turn to underscore her points. One such example follows: ‘generally, the grievously injured bodies shown in published photographs are from Asia or Africa’. Sontag’s example: Tyler Hick’s 2001 triptych published in full colour on the front page of the New York Times of a Taliban soldier begging for his life before being slaughtered by Northern Alliance soldiers. By contrast almost no ‘death repose’ images of those who died in the 9/11 atrocity were published.
The double standards are self-evident and undeniable. Yet as unequivocal as this argument is few of her positions will be new to those with more than a passing interest in the medium – we look out of curiosity, obligation, to awaken indignation in ourselves. Occasionally, however, she forces one to really engage. “… for many, the wish [is] to see something gruesome.” Calling on Plato’s Socrates in a passage on mental conflict in The Republic, Socrates relates the story of Leontius. On seeing the bodies of executed criminals lying on the ground he wanted to look at them but was disgusted and wanted to turn away. Covering his eyes he struggled for some time before the desire became too much for him. Opening his eyes wide, he ran up to the bodies and cried: “There you are, curse you, feast yourself on this lovely sight.” Plato, Sontag argues, seems to take for granted that we also have an appetite for sights of degradation, pain and mutilation.
The modern sensibility, Sontag posits, regards “suffering as something that is a mistake or an accident or a crime. Something to be fixed. Something to be refused. Something that makes one feel powerless.” It is one argument that, while it reaches no conclusion (and how can it as how can we begin to truly know the ancients’ psyche?), offers a fresh perspective on ‘war’ photography. In its relative singularity, it begs for whom was the book written? Photo-literate readers will find little that takes them beyond their existing knowledge, while will the ‘man in the street’ wish to engage in Sontag’s discourses to such an extent as to read the book? Perhaps, Regarding the Pain of Others’ brevity and, on some levels, its largely unremarkable theses can be gleaned from Sontag’s acknowledgements, where she reveals part of the book’s argument was delivered as an Amnesty lecture. While in no way an uninteresting book (and in its historical breadth and illustrative examples – but without accompanying photographs – it is engaging), one can’t help thinking that ultimately it was a more illuminating lecture than it is a book.