What to do with the acknowledge of the pain of others? – On the impact of Photography
To state that we are surrounded by all kinds of images – images of war, pain, misery, cruelty, beauty, pornographic or digitally produced images nowhere to be found in reality – and that this is not without consequences for us has become obvious to everyone and a cliché today. It has also been repeatedly argued that this manic flux of images is responsible for a general state of numbness regarding the Other. For this reason, Susan Sontag proposed and battled, in her famous book “On Photography“ (1977), for an ecology of images.
16 years later and still reflecting on the modern use and meaning of images, Sontag comes to admit that the idea that our ability to react to our experiences with emotional freshness and ethical acuteness is hindered by the constant broadcast of common and disgusting images is nothing but a very conservative critique of the proliferation of such images. Focusing on the intersection between information, news, art and politics in the representation of war and catastrophe, “Regarding the Pain of Others” (2003) reexamines Sontag´s former position and admits that neither an ecology of images is doable nor it is necessarily truth that our exposure to shocking images should result in indifference. We do not become necessarily violent by witnessing images of violence.
No doubt, we are living in an age which contemplates the maximum reproducibility and broadcast of images, with few possibilities to control the context in which they disseminate. But for the most of us wo never experienced war, it remains truth that the understanding of war is only possible through the mediation of photography; something can only become real if it is photographed. From Vietnam onward we came to recognize how war images are not stagged thought everybody knows there´s nothing objective about photos which in some cases have even been used both in favour and against something. Which leads us to ask: can an image make us understanding something?
According to Sontag, if there is a year in which the ability of photography to define reality was stronger than any narrative this was 1945, with the images of the first days after the liberation from the concentration camps of Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald and Dachau, and also the images of what happened in Hiroxima and Nagasaqui.
In the fight between word and image – a very old querrel still far from its end – the problem is not, for Sontag, that we might remember events through photographies but that we only remember events through them. It is a problem that remember is no longer remember a story but being able to remember an image.Photographies do not lose their ability to shock but they do not help a lot when it is about understanding.