In On Photography (1977), Susan Sontag presented what is arguably the most important discussion of the meaning of photography in the English language. Her work has been cited—attacked and acclaimed—ever since it began appearing as a series of essays in The New York Review of Books in the early 1970’s. In scattered essays and introductions to the work of others, she has extended her arguments about photography, but in Regarding the Pain of Others she has provided not only a major restatement of views but also a challenge to some of her earlier opinions. Although this book concentrates on reaction to photography, it is also, like On Photography, a deeply probing meditation on modern life.
Sontag begins her study of wartime photographs with a discussion of Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas (1938), a book which explores the origins of war by looking at a set of photographs depicting the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). In it, Woolf examines the different ways women and men react to war, especially as war has been a male enterprise. Would a man revolted by war have the same feelings as a woman like Woolf, who has neither the power nor the desire to make war? The man who writes to her about his antiwar feelings assumes that his reactions are the same as those of Woolf’s, but she does not believe that he can take his “we” (himself and Woolf) for granted.
Sontag does not so much challenge Woolf’s feminist position as suggest it is not comprehensive enough, for she notes that Woolf herself later lapses into the same use of “we.” “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain,” Sontag concludes. The distinction to be made, in other words, is not just between men’s and women’s reactions to the portrayal of war but also between the reality of war as others experience it and the perception of everyone else who only observes and responds to the images of war.
In fact, Woolf’s generalizations about what photographs of war mean are questionable, Sontag suggests: “To read in the pictures . . . only what confirms a general abhorrence of war is to stand back from an engagement with Spain as a country with a history. It is to dismiss politics.” The viewer who regards war as inevitable or a particular war as just will not regard the gruesome photographs as an antiwar argument at all. Indeed, the violence shown in photographs can be taken by some viewers as the consequence of heroic action, a fight for certain ideals, and an affirmation of human courage.
Sontag points out that many important antiwar collections of photographs were published between World War I and World War II, and although pacifists viewed the visual record as proving the horror of war and were spurred on to create agreements between countries to outlaw war, horrified responses to these images could not ultimately overcome the forces of history that Woolf ignored in Three Guineas. As the politics of an era change, so do the meaning of photographs. Thus Sontag concludes that in the “current political mood, the friendliest to the military in decades, the pictures of wretched hollow-eyed GIs that once seemed subversive of militarism and imperialism may seem inspirational. Their revised subject: ordinary American young men doing their unpleasant, ennobling duty.”
Photographs not only change meaning in terms of the historical context in which they are viewed but they also share a problematic status because of their form of publication. Thus Robert Capa’s famous photograph of a Spanish Republican soldier at the moment of death appeared in Life magazine across from a full-page advertisement for Vitalis, a hair cream, illustrated with photographs of men with shimmering hair. Two worlds collide in these side-by-side photographs, with one image no more important than the other. How can Capa’s photograph—in spite of its shocking power—retain a hold on viewers in a world that is bombarded with the reproduction and diffusion of images?
There is a further, disturbing ambiguity in the Capa photograph that Sontag cannot ignore. It has been alleged that the photograph is, in fact, just a shot taken during a training exercise. In other words, like many other...
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