Reflecting on “Regarding the Pain of Others” by Susan Sontag

My tutor in report for As. 4 recommended to read Susan Sontag’s Book: Regarding the pain of others. She thought that it might be useful when unpacking ideas of shock and synthesizing a traditional “live action” approach with aftermath.

I found the book and below are my thoughts/ reflections. I have to admit that it was a really interesting but not so pleasant book.

Chapter 1

  • Men and women look differently at War. War is a man’s game. I think I agree with that. I believe that if there were more women as world leaders there would have been fewer wars. I do not know if it has to do with maternal instincts, that from their nature they do not want their children or other mother’s kids to die or it is simply that women seems to be more emotional than men. Of course that is not the rule etc…but it is an interesting point raised in the book.
  • “Not to be pained by these pictures, not to recoil from them, not to strive to abolish what causes this havoc, this carnage—these, for Woolf, would be the reactions of a moral monster. And, she is saying, we are not monsters, we members of the educated class. Our failure is one of imagination, of empathy: we have failed to hold this reality in mind”. I think we are indeed monsters. Even if I am not happy writing that. Personally, I cannot image intentionally harm somebody else. But this is not how an important portion of humans thing. If that was not the case we would have lived in a peaceful planet. And yes, that is the result in most of the cases of the educated class. Even in wars we can see that “simple” people from different countries manage to overcome their difficulties if they are forced to live together after a war. The problem is with those in power, with their decisions and with what comes because of them.
  • “For Woolf, as for many antiwar polemicists, war is generic, and the images she describes are of anonymous, generic victims… To those who are sure that right is on one side, oppression and injustice on the other, and that the fighting must go on, what matters is precisely who is killed and by whom… Alter the caption, and the children’s deaths could be used and reused” It is sad how a person with a character and ID etc become just a body when they die. We speak of number of dead bodies everyday in the news and if it far, it sound like we are speaking for broken toys. The closer it is to us, the sadder we feel. But we only remember if it is a friend or a relative. The altering of a caption to benefit one or the other side is totally unethical for me. It also does not show respect to those who died. If I remember correctly, in Ancient Greece they respect the dead bodies even from their opponents, thousands years later and instead of becoming better we become worst in this aspect.
  • “In fact, there are many uses of the innumerable opportunities a modern life supplies for regarding—at a distance, through the medium of photography—other people’s pain. Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen” The first part is relevant to my essay. Photos of horror events can lead to discussion for the effects of the war and hopefully lead to peace. However, as it is mentioned, the more images of horror we can see the more we get used to them and hence, we start just accepting them as something common.

Chapter 2

  • “Something becomes real—to those who are elsewhere, following it as “news”—by being photographed I was thinking something similar for a personal trip. Things did not work out the way I wanted and kind of felt that if I will not take photos of this trip it will feel like it never happened. However, it is not similar in wars etc. It is important to prevent them from happening, not from being photographed. It is the reality we have to change not the photos.
  • “Photography is the only major art in which professional training and years of experience do not confer an insuperable advantage over the untrained and inexperienced—this for many reasons, among them the large role that chance (or luck) plays in the taking of pictures, and the bias toward the spontaneous, the rough, the imperfect” Yes that is might be correct. You do not need the professional training to take good photos, as many great photographers are and were self educated. However, as a photography student, I think the photography education helps you to understand the photography as art and why people are taking photos. That maybe does not help you directly to improve your photography skills; it helps though to appreciate even more what you are doing.
  • “Normally, if there is any distance from the subject, what a photograph “says” can be read in several ways” I think there was more relevant discussion about that in one of the essays we had to analyse
  • “ The memory of war, however, like all memory, is mostly local.” I agree with that. The closer the war zone or the victims of an attack the more it touches us.


Chapter 3

  • A painting or drawing is judged a fake when it turns out not to be by the artist to whom it had been attributed. A photograph—or a filmed document available on television or the internet—is judged a fake when it turns out to be deceiving the viewer about the scene it purports to depict”. Again an interesting point here. I though this before but not as parallel thoughts. Painting, does not have to depict exactly reality, it is just telling a story. In Photography, especially in photojournalism an accurate depiction of what has happened is expected.

Chapter 4

  • “This, of course, is how war looks when it is seen from afar, as an image. Victims, grieving relatives, consumers of news all have their own nearness to or distance from war. The frankest representations of war and of disaster-injured bodies are of those who seem most foreign, therefore least likely to be known. With subjects closer to home, the photographer is expected to be more discreet”. Again similar to above, how we are related to the subject or the area of the disaster affect how we look at the photos and how we feel about them.
  • “During the Vietnam era, war photography became, normatively, a criticism of war. This was bound to have consequences: mainstream media are not in the business of making people feel queasy about the struggles for which they are being mobilized, much less of disseminating propaganda against waging war. Since then, censorship—the most extensive kind, self-censorship, as well as censorship imposed by the military— has found a large and influential number of apologists… There had not been such drastic restrictions on the reporting of a British military operation since the Crimean War.” Again some interesting facts about how Vietnam war was the last to be photographed with no restrictions (have discussed this issue in the past in during the landscape course)


Chapter 7

  • “Here is Baudelaire writing in his journal in the early 1860s:It is impossible to glance through any newspaper, no matter what the day, the month or the year, without finding on every line the most frightful traces of human perversity… Every newspaper, from the first line to the last, is nothing but a tissue of horrors. Wars, crimes, thefts, lecheries, tortures, the evil deeds of princes, of nations, of private individuals; an orgy of universal atrocity. And it is with this loathsome appetizer that civilized man daily washes down his morning repast./Newspapers did not yet carry photographs when Baudelaire wrote” I am really feeling the same when I am looking online or when I am looking in twitter. I also believe that we can be informed for much more horror events around the world today than in 1860 and also I believe that we have much more catastrophic weapons and more terror attacks, so I just wonder what Baudelaire would have felt if he had the change to “travel in the future”. Sad really sad…


Chapter 8

  • “Parked in front of the little screens—television, computer, palmtop—we can surf to images and brief reports of disasters throughout the world. It seems as if there is a greater quantity of such news than before. This is probably an illusion. It’s just that the spread of news is “everywhere.” Just mentioned that I feel that today are more crimes than many years ago. Also, considering that the book is written on 2003 I think that we have more terror attacks in 2017 than few years ago. It feels, for me, that we are in constant war with terrorism and the war zones can be anywhere and maybe that is harder for civilians.

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