Regarding the Pain of Others

by Susan Sontag

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1746

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 photographs Sontag discusses—such as the great work of Civil War photographer Matthew Brady and his assistants—this one may have been staged or rehearsed. When the image is thus called into doubt, it loses some of its power, because a photograph is taken to be a trace of an actual event, an undeniable representation of the real. Photographs, Sontag argues, cannot ever be as authentic as, say, Francisco de Goya’s magnificent series of eighty-three etchings that protested Napoleon’s invasion of France, because Goya’s art is undeniably the work of his own hand, accompanied by captions that express his outrage at the inhumanity of war.

On one hand, Goya’s work can never have quite the same immediacy as a photograph—which proclaims that the photographer was there, and the viewer can see what the photographer saw. On the other hand, the immediacy—even when the photograph has not been staged—necessarily has a degree of bias or subjectivity. The photograph has to be taken from an angle, and what the angle frames is also a testament to what is left out of the picture. As Sontag notes, viewers want to believe that photographs are literally true, but an examination of the medium shows this cannot be so.

Even though Sontag seems to discount heavily the reliability of photographs and their ultimate power to persuade and move people to antiwar actions, she nevertheless takes issue with her earlier book’s pessimism that photographs have actually dominated the public’s sense of reality and that war is only what they see in photographs or on television. She reexamines her earlier concern about the way photography and the mass media infiltrate human consciousness and sensationalize events in terms of images.

She notes that, beginning with the poetry of William Wordsworth, this distrust of modern life, of an urbanization that leads people to crave greater and greater visual stimulation that degrades their ability to reason, has evolved into the alarming writings of certain French philosophers who believe that people only see the world—including the pain of others in war—as a spectacle. Their senses have been so captivated by the mass media that they cannot think for themselves. History changes, in other words, only in so far as the media does. An outraged Sontag exclaims: “To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism.” How can a group of intellectuals suppose that their jaded view of the media has any relevance to millions of people in the less priviledged world, whose suffering is real and not mediated by photographs or television. Millions who watch television lead less comfortable lives that do not allow them the “luxury of patronizing reality.”

Sontag is not merely attacking her fellow intellectuals; rather, she is affirming a sense of reality that exists apart from portrayals of it. As she puts it: “There is still a reality that exists independent of the attempts to weaken its authority.” On Photography never denied this reality, but it did seem to suggest reality could be overwhelmed by the plethora of photographic images. Seeing the extremes to which her own former argument can be taken, she recoils. No quantity of images, she implies, can ever actually supplant reality.

What, then, should be the proper attitude toward photography? Sontag is aware that some viewers simply refuse to look—to be inundated by images of wartime atrocities. Even when viewers do look, their very sympathy for suffering may only express their sense of distance from the pain they see. The photographs simply make for more spectators. What else can most people do, though, but watch? Sontag asks. It is in the nature of vision itself and not photographs to create a sense of distance, of removal from the action. Photographs have not invented the way people regard the pain of others.

Sontag does not believe it is a problem that viewers switch channels or turn pages when confronted with images of suffering. She believes there is no reproach involved, because photographs are no different from anything else one sees; that is, photographs cannot be expected to transform one’s vision of the world any more than one’s sight of anything else would. Similarly, photographs cannot be expected to reform the world, to give it a sense of history. At best, photographs are a goad to curiosity and may spark inquiries into origins of human suffering.

Ultimately, it is not possible to experience fully another’s pain, Sontag concludes. One asks too much of photographs in this regard. They provide only an approach to the pain of others, an approach that can be explored or evaded. Either way, there is nothing inherent in the photographic medium that excludes alternative responses.

At the end of her book, Sontag returns to her insistence that “we,” in regard to the experience of war, the reality of war, can only be used by those who have been there. When a journalist, a soldier, an aid worker—anyone who has been under fire during war—claims that “we” (everyone who has not experienced war) cannot imagine how horrible it is, Sontag replies, in the last sentence of her book, “they are right.”

In her acknowledgments, Sontag provides a brief but highly informative survey of the literature on photography she used while composing her book. It is a pity, however, that Regarding the Pain of Others has no index. It is extraordinary that a writer who makes so many references to other writers, artists, and thinkers and her publisher—the only publisher she has ever had—have never included an index in any of her books. For both beginning students and scholars, a fully indexed Sontag would aid in rereading and cross-referencing her arguments within and between her books.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 11 (February 1, 2003): 954.

The Christian Science Monitor, March 27, 2003, p. 19.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 3 (February 1, 2003): 218.

Library Journal 128, no. 4 (March 1, 2003): 108.

Los Angeles Times, March 16, 2003, p. 8.

New Republic 228, no. 15/16 (April 21, 2003): 28-31.

New Statesman 132, no. 4650 (August 11, 2003): 34-35.

The New York Review of Books 50, no. 7 (May 1, 2003): 8-10.

The New York Times, March 11, 2003, p. E10.

The New York Times Book Review, March 23, 2003, p. 11-12.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 7 (February 17, 2003): 67.

The San Francisco Chronicle, April 13, 2003, p. M6.

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