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Viewing images of war & pain.

Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Books), 2003

When you remember, is it a story or an image that you recall? Given the ubiquity of images, Susan Sontag claims that it is hardly surprising that, for many people, a photo, picture, painting or film clip is what resides in the forefront of their minds. For such a small book, Sontag's scope is broad. She incorporates observations and musings on a variety of themes and topics, drawing on a wide variety of sources (such as images associated with World War I, the Holocaust, conflicts in Israel and Bosnia, and the New York terrorist attacks).

Regarding the Pain of Others is not only an examination of how we regard and view images of pain, death, suffering and war, but it is also an investigation of the implications of such observations. It is a book primarily about war, but it is grounded in discussions of photographs that depict pain. One of Sontag's central concerns is whether it is possible to look at images of war, pain and suffering and move beyond pity to understanding. Her book is a timely reflection on the imagery of war and pain, especially since it is set in a context of recent wars and horror: 11 September, the Middle East and Iraq.

The horrific image on the front cover from Goya's Disasters of War (created between 1810 and 1820) depicts a man with a broken neck, hanging from a tree. The most disturbing aspect of the image is the illustration in the foreground of a soldier observing the execution. Both his posture and facial expression convey relaxation and indifference. This image seems to embody the series of questions which Sontag then raises. How do onlookers or viewers of other people's pain absorb, confront, or resist? What is the effect of our exposure to images of war and pain? What are the purposes of war images and what meanings do they convey? Can photographs be neutral and show rather than evoke?

Similar questions also appear in her earlier collection of essays On Photography (1977). Twenty-six years later, Regarding the Pain of Others stems from an Amnesty lecture that she gave in February 2001. Sontag engages in a dialogue with herself, reflecting, revisiting and even revising some of the arguments made in On Photography.

Sontag points out that she is revisiting a theme that has also been considered by many writers before her (36). She explores the issues surrounding people's apparent fascination with the misery and pain of others. But, on the other hand, given that images of war and suffering are pervasive, does this not dull the potential effects? Sontag argues that the potential for photographs to function as 'shock therapy' (13) does not have to diminish with time, or have 'term limits' (73). However, she cautions against the potential for slippage from memory and commemoration to a sense of false understanding. While photographs may be powerful tools for ensuring that atrocities remain fresh and alive, commemorating the historical suffering of others (in museums, for example) does not guarantee an understanding of their pain.

To illustrate her point, Sontag contrasts the understandings of war among people who have not experienced it with people who have been close to such catastrophe. She contends that for those people removed from the war's location, their understanding of pain and suffering is a 'product of the impact of the images' (19). By contrast, for people in the war zone, the experience can often feel 'unreal, surreal, like a movie' (19). Sontag concludes with final thoughts on the distinction between the experience of war as opposed to the experience of war imagery.

Having experienced three wars herself (Vietnam, Israel, Sarajevo) Sontag stresses the distinction between 'reality' and 'representation'. She points to the limitations of spectators to understand what the pain of war must be like without having experienced it in 'reality'. I, too, have lived in a war zone in Israel. After many attempts to explain to people on the other side of the world who have no experience of living in such an environment, I am sympathetic to Sontag's argument that many people have difficulty moving beyond a 'camera mediated knowledge of war' (21). And yet this is somewhat understandable, because how can an image of the aftermath of a suicide bombing replace, reproduce and/or explain the effect of dragging loved ones from shattered buses and removing pieces of metal from bloodied bodies? The limitations of moral indignation and compassion are highlighted but, at the same time, Sontag points out that it is worth engaging seriously with the images.

The distinction between 'reality' and 'representation' is also illustrated by Sontag's argument that photographs are not a transparent account of reality (72). Rather than being the 'eye of history' (46), the camera is able to produce staged photographs. Furthermore, Sontag provides examples of how different people can use a single photograph for divergent purposes. For example, during the Balkans war the same photograph of slain children was passed around the fighting communities (Serbs and Croats) in order to illustrate the suffering in.icted upon their people (9). How, then, asks Sontag, is it possible to revere photographs as incontrovertible evidence, capable of 'showing' rather than 'evoking' (42)?

Sontag knows her subject well. She is comfortable with a broad range of topics from the history of photography and painting to analysis

of the media. The tone of Regarding the Pain of Others is not didactic but suggestive, raising questions for readers to reflect upon. Sontag provides interesting anecdotes and raises important questions, but she tends to leave the reader hanging. At times the book reads more like stream-of-consciousness rather than a text with a central and logically developed argument. However, the absence of a clear argument could either be construed as a weakness or strength of the book. After all, one of Sontag's main aims is an attempt to compel viewers of war images to think seriously for themselves about the process of 'regarding the pain of others'. To aid this process, it would have been helpful to be able to regard (view) the actual images to which Sontag refers. With the exception of the front cover, not a single image is included in the book. If you are interested in viewing some of the photographs referred to in Regarding the Pain of Others visit shows/2003.

Sontag's book would appeal to both a general and academic readership interested in the representation of and meanings associated with war. It is recommended for those who wish to reflect on thorny--and often painful--questions about our responses (and responsibilities?) to war and its images.

Other works cited: Susan Sontag, On Photography, New York: Picador, 1977.


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Title Annotation:Regarding the Pain of Others
Author:Hester, Jennifer
Publication:Traffic (Parkville)
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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