Posts tagged ‘War’

Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag (II)

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?

October 3, 2008 at 12:15 pm 1 comment

Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag

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.

October 3, 2008 at 11:15 am Leave a comment


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