Regarding the Pain of Others Susan Sontag, A Review

Susan Sontag, New York, May 1967 -Photo by Philippe Halsman
Still, there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder - a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.
— Susan Sontag, in ‘On Photography’ (1977)

Regarding the Pain of Others (2004) [131 pp] is Susan Sontag’s second book on photography.  This text reads like a long essay on the ethics of representing the trauma of others through photography and visual media.  Sontag argues that part of the modern experience is that the photographic image not only represents reality, but creates our imaginings.  “Photographs have the kind of authority over imagination today, which the printed word had yesterday, and the spoken word before that.  They seem utterly real” (Walter Lippmann quoted in Sontag, 22).  She argues that wars are now spectacles that people experience in their living rooms and in museums; spaces where they are distant and distracted spectators of the trauma that is represented.  Images shape the collective memory; people come to know the history of the Holocaust, for example, primarily through searing still images.  The things that are not represented visually are often forgotten.     

Sontag’s essay interrupts the entire economy of the still image and questions the ethics of privileged positions such as those of the photographer and spectator in relation to violence and trauma.   Sontag takes issue with the photographers who wait for corpses to photograph knowing they will elicit flinching and titillation in the spectators who hunger for these images.  To meet the demands of spectators, photographers look for gruesome images that will shock and that will meet the exigencies of the consumer.  Artsy photographs of trauma, for example, are not in favor because they seem too forced.  Staged images that were practical in the American Civil War, in the Spanish Civil War and in the Liberation of the Concentration Camps in 1945 are also out of favor because they do not command moral authority.  In this way, photographers capture still images for the cultural field. 

Sontag presents spectators as debordian in the sense that they crave images and passively accept photographs as a true slice of life.  “It seems that the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked” (33).  However, she points out that photographs do not help us understand anything and only reaffirm our own entrenched beliefs.  Events in the lives of spectators have to be represented visually in order for them to seem real.  While Sontag does not mention Facebook, it is easy to make a parallel here between the constant photo streams that pass through Facebook.  People need the affirmation of the photographic image; ironically, events must become photographed spectacles in order to be real.  Still, Sontag points out that not everyone has the privilege of being a spectator; many people do not have distance from trauma.    

In sum, one of the main ethical problems that Sontag takes up in Regarding the Pain of Others the emotional response of spectators to the photographic image.  She asks if it is problematic that spectators are not overly affected by the onslaught of images.  She mentions an ecology of images, an idea from her earlier book about rationing images to minimize the barrage of violent images.  Is it okay that viewers have built a tolerance to violent scenes?  Is it acceptable that spectators hunger for gruesome images?  Is it ethical to even look at these images if one is powerless to do anything about them?  She concludes that it is potentially acceptable to use images to contemplate violence, but refrains from resolving the problematic positions of the photographer who makes a living from other people's trauma and a spectator who is watching from a safe distance.