Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag (II)

October 3, 2008 at 12:15 pm 1 comment

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Barbara Kruger, You Substantiate Your Horror
Photo: Mendel, flickr

Could one then oppose war just by looking at an image? Can an image change the world or at least us?

Photographing the pain of others leads us to recognize their suffering, but how is protesting against suffering different from recognizing it only? – Sontag asks. „To nominate a hell is definitely not the same thing as to say anything on how to take people out of that hell“. Images seem to tell us only what horrible things people can do to each other and with pleasure, all over the world.
So Sontag righteously asks: „what is the point in showing such images? Make us feel indignation? Cause sadness and consternation? Help us to mourn? Do we become better by watching them? Do they teach us something? Or do they confirm what we already knew?“

It has been repeatedly pointed out that we are living in a society of spectacle, in which people also aim to transform themselves in spectacle. There seems to be nothing but representations, media representations more precisely. In this state of over stimulation, the hunt for dramatic images which drives the photographic enterprise is, according to Sontag, a mere reflex of a culture in which shock has become the main stimulus for consumption and a source of value.
One of the functions of photography is to improve how things look, and this tends to diminish a moral response to what is showed. Perhaps this is why people often react against images of war and suffering, specially if they are beautiful. And when showed in a museum or art gallery, we often ask ourselves if that isn´t just unecessary exploration of the suffering of others?
It seems that in order to provoke an active response images must shock. But how long does the shock last, Sontag strikingly asks. If we are able to get used to horror in our real life we’re also able to get use to the horror of certain images, the author refers. People often criticize news´ photographers for proffiting commercially from images drawn in scenarios in which they did nothing to help, critics contemptuously call them “war tourists” often forgetting how they´ve risked their life to give us testimony.

It seems thought that our attention is being driven by the attention of the media, of the images, that in a world full with them, the ones which should interest us have hardly any effect on us and that our insensitivity to them is somehow deeply related to the way television works. Sontag sustains, that the multiplicity of images showed in TV favours a light, mobile, slightly indifference to content, for the flux of images in television excludes a privileged one. What matters in television is that we may always change the channel. Sontag also believes that people simply turn off not because they’ve become indifferent to those images but because they are scared. It is because we have the feeling that war, any war, cannot be stopped (even pacifists no longer believe war can be stopped) that people have become less sensitive to its horrors. Symptoms of apathy, moral or emotional numbness are, in Sontag´s view, nothing but full of feelings of rage and frustration.

It is not an unsufficiency that we are not touched enough or that we do not suffer enough with those images, for the way Sontad sees it, it is not photography’s job to repair our ignorance on history or the cause of pain of others which it selects and frames. For the author, those images are but an invitation to reflect, try to learn, examine, etc. in order to finally ask ourselves: is there a state of things which we’ve accepted so far and should be questioned now?

Entry filed under: Blogroll, Books. Tags: , , , , .

Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag BIRDS (left) by Niklas Goldbach

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Claire  |  October 27, 2008 at 7:11 pm

    Sontag is brilliant. You are as well.

    Reply

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