Review: Regarding the Pain of Others

“It is because a war, any war, doesn’t seem as if it can be stopped that people become less responsive to the horrors. Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.” – Susan Sontag

Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag
162 pages
Genre: Sociology, photography
Published by Picador Modern Classics, 2003
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: As with every Sontag book I’ve read, I’ll be revisiting this one.

Reviewed by Indiana

There’s nothing quite like an essay or book by Susan Sontag.

It’s a lesson in history as much as it is a critical thinking marathon, often asking the reader to question reality as it’s been presented and as it’s being presented.

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag dives into images of war and how for years and years (perhaps to a certain degree even today) it was believed that if everyone could see the ugliness of war, could see the death and the pain that war causes, wars wouldn’t exist.

But the thing is, we’ve been capturing war in a visual if not verbal sense for hundreds of years. War photography goes as far back as the Civil War in the U.S., and even further in other countries. People often talk about the Vietnam War being traumatic for the civilians in the U.S. because of the way it was covered in the news; because it was the first war that was televised using relatively modern technology.

Yet, we still have war. The years of visually and verbally documenting it don’t seem to have stopped it. 

Sontag also makes the point that war photography doesn’t lead to a better understanding of what’s actually happening on the ground. Far from it. Because everything tends to look a bit better, a bit shinier, more nuanced, in a photograph, people tend to look at the drama and the emotions coming from the image, rather than searching for an understanding of the situation.

Yet war photography tends to have a sense of beauty. Even if it’s a tragic beauty.

“Photographs that depict suffering shouldn’t be beautiful, as captions shouldn’t moralize. In this view, a beautiful photograph drains the attention from the sobering subject and turns it toward the medium itself, thereby compromising the picture’s status as a document,” Sontag writes.

She goes on to argue that people have started to remember through photographs instead of remembering through their understanding of the past.

“The problem is not that people remember through photographs, but that they remember only the photographs. This remembering through photographs eclipses other forms of understanding, and remembering,” Sontag writes, “ . . . Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us.”

Reading this book, I couldn’t help but think about my local newspaper or even the New York Times or another nationally-focused newspaper and consider how photojournalists today are treating the matter. Within my local community, there is a debate about what the local newspapers and news stations should show in their photographs every time there is a terrible car crash, fire, shooting, etc. Some believe that the victims should never be shown, others say that the images could be disturbing to families. Yet, others say it’s important for fellow community members to see what’s going on even through photographs.

Sontag challenged all of those positions, and challenged the narrow narrative that many photojournalists adhere to.

If you haven’t read a Sontag essay, I highly recommend it!


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