Reading Prompt Due Sunday by 5pm

According to Susan Sontag, what are the assumptions about trauma photography that most people hold? What arguments does she make in order to debunk those assumptions in Regarding the Pain of Others?

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39 Responses to Reading Prompt Due Sunday by 5pm

  1. alangdon93 says:

    Susan Sontag points to two main arguments about trauma photography. The first is that “public attention is steered by the attentions of the media” (104). Also referred to as the “CNN-effect,” the first argument addresses the idea that the only suffering people pay attention to or care about is what is seen on the television, despite the suffering that goes on that is not televised (104). The second, is the idea that people are so deluged with images that our minds are “habituated” to the shock, and the effect is decreased with each picture (105). Interestingly, Sontag admits to have fed into both of these main arguments in her previous work. However, in revisiting them, she is not satisfied.
    Her new argument posed in Regarding the Pain of Others is against her initial views. She equates the photograph to a visual experience analogous to seeing with our own eyes. She attacks her previous reproach of watching from a far because watching from up close is still just watching (117). The way humans interact with these trauma images is the way people react with their eyes. Their eyes see in an effortless manner, the subject is interpreted at a distance, and our eyelids give us a choice to look or to shut off input. This supports the illegitimacy of the problem with people “not suffering enough” when they look at photographs (117). After separating what it means to remember something and to think and reflect on something, Sontag states that images cannot be more than invitations to think, learn, and reflect on how humans caused suffering. That statement puts the onus on the human mind for ignoring, exploiting, or turning away from the images, not the photograph. She further argues that our human capacity to think about suffering has probably not changed much since the flood of images. It is only our inability to say we are ignorant of the other invitations to think that has changed.

    • Sheila Jelen says:

      I don’t recall seeing a critique of seeing in her essay, but I think you are right that she would argue that just because we can now see other people’s tragedies with great ease does not mean that we have become more empathic, or more ethical, as a human race. On the contrary, our access and lack of response reflects our lack of empathy.

  2. Throughout Susan Sontag’s Regarding The Pain Of Others, Sontag seeks to explore the assumptions people have to “trauma photography” – photography of traumatic or horrific events – and explains the amounts that these assumptions are accurate or inaccurate. Sontag states that “photographs are a means of making real matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore” (7). Sontag is arguing here that images are what drive home the reality of war to the viewer. She expands that the only war, or other suffering, that is real to the viewer is that which they see. Without images of horror, it is just as if these horrors do not exist. Sontag states, however, that the differences between the old ways of viewing and the modern ones is that now people are overwhelmed with a plethora of images of horror. Sontag knows that these horrors will not go away, so there is no chance that the images will stop (108). Sontag does explain, though, that while images can make people aware of the horrors of war, they will never truly know what these horrors were like. In the last pages of the book, Sontag states straight out that “We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes” (125-6). Although images can allow people to observe the horrors of war, to feel like they are seeing it, they cannot know what these horrors are like unless they have experienced them. Sontag states that there is a limit to how realistic, and how helpful, a photograph can be.

  3. Many people hold the belief that trauma photography should not be beautiful. It seems unethical to be able to find beauty in an image of such a horrific subject. However, Sontag illustrates that this is historically what art did, Leonardo da Vinci was one of such artists who encouraged this, and photography is an art form as well. Additionally, most people view trauma photography with skepticism, quickly claiming them to be staged, and thereby insignificant and even repulsive, if they do not accord with their views. It is true that photographs are often staged, Sontag cites examples as far back as the American civil war, and it is even easier to accomplish now with the help of programs such as photoshop. But, Sontag notes that there are many photographs that would be impossible to stage, notably many famous images from the Vietnam War. The practice seems to be dying out, as the backlash resulting from the knowledge that a scene was faked can be so harsh. Others, including at one point Sontag herself, believe that the excess of trauma photography, how saturated out daily lives are with it, constantly bombarded by the media, has desensitized us to it, that we no longer have the same reaction, or much of a reaction at all, to such photographs or to violence in general. However, Sontag points out that this rests on the assumption that the entire world is a spectator, that there is a large elite who do not participate but merely observe the tragedies occurring in others’ lives. This is far from reality, it is a superior viewpoint that distances one from the violence, insulating oneself from having to care, from feeling the need to take action. The abundance of photographs and our ready access to them does not diminish their reality. People still caused, witnessed, and experienced the effects of the incidences displayed.

    • Sheila Jelen says:

      I am not sure that she is arguing that staging the trauma photograph necessarily reflected a need to aestheticize. Rather, she seems to argue that the staging was an effort to increase the shock in many cases.

  4. clairetomaszewski says:

    In Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, she reflects on some major assumptions about trauma photography, and she even changes her views on arguments she has written in the past. Traumatic photography is often used to expose reality to people who did not experience these traumas. In the past, it has been said that seeing a photograph of something traumatic is just as shocking as seeing it in person, because seeing is still seeing. However, Sontag opposes this argument and says that looking at photographs and images of trauma is not equivalent to experiencing it in real life. She talks a lot about war throughout the book. Seeing images from wars may be disturbing and shocking to those that did not experience it (especially for wars like World War II and the Vietnam War), it still does not have the same effect as seeing it happen right in front of you. I agree with this argument. Soldiers come back from war and have post traumatic stress disorder because of the things they experience in war. People do not get PTSD from looking at images. Although images can give some meaning to events and still be very disturbing, if the viewer has not personally experienced the trauma, they “can’t understand, can’t imagine” what it was like (126).

    • Sheila Jelen says:

      You are quite right that she is distinguishing between seeing in a photograph and seeing in real life. I am interested, however, in your contention that seeing trauma in a photograph does not cause PTSD. I am not sure that is true.

  5. shjones says:

    Sontag takes on several assumptions in her work “Regarding the Pain of Others.” The first one she covers is the widely held supposition that photographs of war are instruments used to protest and help hasten the ends of various tradgedies. People believe that photographs of such tradgedies can only be used to in this manner. Sontag argues that this is not the case. She points out that the photograph itself is one of generic war. It is the distributor of the picture that frames it’s meaning. The pictures, for example, could be used ” foster greater greater militancy on the behalf of the Republic.” In other words, pictures of tradgedy can take on more than just the role of anti-war propaganda.
    The next assumption Sontag tackles is that which says viewers of such pictures are gradually desensitized to the gruesomeness. Sontag argues that this isn’t true. People don’t change the channel or put down the newspaper because they don’t care about the images. Rather, they know what they are seeing is bad, find it distasteful and naturally react by avoiding it.
    Sontag also faces the uncomfortable truth that images of tragedy can in way, be “beautiful”. She says that humans are attracted to the pictures because of an almost pornographic quality. Societally we know the content is wrong, but our biological drives still find something appealing in the mutilation of the human body.

    • Sheila Jelen says:

      You have successfully picked out the three main arguments in the essay. I am especially disturbed by her observation that humans have a kind of tropism towards the tragic or the grotesque. This is not an assumption she undermines in her essay, however, but an assertion that she correctly makes.

  6. knkern94 says:

    Sontag’s desription of trauma photography throughout “Regarding the Pain of Others” shows a new way of thinking about photography, especially since she has labeled this new wave of up close and personal war photography as a modern form of art. Most trauma photography has been used for the purpose of bringing to light an issue, whether that photo be in a newspaper article or displayed in an art gallery. These are scenes people do not want to see or would rather forget about because of the negative connotation they display, but “one could feel an obligation to look at these pictures, gruesome as they were, because there was something to be done, right now, about what they depicted” (Sontag 91). Society would rather ignore these issues, but with these photos lies an undeniable truth that something has to be done to fight trauma, whether it is in our faces or not. However, these photographs cannot always solve the issue or aleviate with some type of help, like when she describe the pictures of slavery and abuse of black people that only stir up uneasy feelings and emotions. There is a fine line between looking at war photos as historical documentation or as just a physical reminder of past wrongs.

    “For photographs to accuse, and possibly alter conduct, they must shock”(Sontag 81). This furthers her argument about causing change with photography, but only under the assumption that people are appalled and shocked by the trauma images they see. This has become a problem as the public becomes more and more exposed to these images and are desensified to the subject of trauma. She makes a discussion in the first couple of chapters that people who are not queasy to the sight of horrific images are considered odd. Then she begins to say that “uglifying” things has become a modern art and it is no longer odd to pass by a gruesome sight and not even flinch. Where does this leave the role of war photography? How does a photographer or artist fight against this desensitivity? Those answers are still changing and molding, just as war and trauma in this world are changing.

    • Sheila Jelen says:

      Your distinction between the use of these photos as historical documentation and as general reminders of “past wrongs” is quite astute. I think that Sontag too is concerned that the photos be used in as specific a sense as possible.

  7. colleenshipley says:

    Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others is a very thorough investigation into the motives behind capturing and viewing trauma photography. Although it seemed that every few sentences she sought to reverse some commonly assumptions that are commonly held by the public, there was one major notion that seemed to overarch the others. This was the idea that viewing images of tragedy makes individuals feel they are a part of the solution to the issue presented in the photograph.

    By feeling sympathy from the distance and comfort of their own homes, people can feel as though they are not involved with the forces that caused the tragedy. This creates a false sense of superiority, because ‘so far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering’ [102].

    Sontag ponders the idea that ‘the only people with the right to look at images of suffering…are those who could do something to alleviate it’ [38]. Otherwise, people just become spectators doing no real good to the victims in the photograph. Because people tend to ignore images of injustice when they feel there is nothing they can do about it, by acknowledging such images, they feel like they are taking action against the issue.

    Likewise, by showing the ugliness of war, many feel that they are promoting peace. However, ‘war has been the norm and peace the exception’ [74]. To think that something as simple as photographs could change this is just idealistic. Because people are naturally belligerent, showing images of war casualties often has the opposite effect, and just increases animosity towards the enemy. Sontag cites an example where the same photographs of dead children were circulated to both sides of a war to foster hatred toward the other. In photographic culture, it is often stressed to remember or “never forget,” but often such thinking only embitters people and makes it harder to move past such injustices.

    An interesting trend of tragic photography in the United States is the clear favoritism shown towards Americans and Europeans. Often photographs or videos are withheld from the public to protect the family members of the deceased. Or the victim’s face and identity will remain anonymous. The same treatment is not shown toward foreign or “colonized” individuals. Similarly, America tends to celebrate traumatic photographs and events from other countries, such as African genocide or the European Holocaust. But to acknowledge such evils as have occurred on American soil [such as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the Trail of Tears], would be to admit that such things happen “here” and not “there.” This allows America to maintain a skewed self-perception, as is seen in the photographs that are taken and displayed throughout the country.

    • Sheila Jelen says:

      Yes — I think you have picked up on two of the most important points in the essay — the question of the ethical responsibility to act once you have looked, and the different was in which victims are identified or documented, depending on their subject position vis a vis the Western viewer.

  8. Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others discusses the ethics of war photography. Three assumptions people make about trauma photography is that everyone reacts the same way to the same pictures, that those pictures show the absolute truth, and finally that they lend credence to the idea that terrible occurrences like famine, war, and genocide only happen to exotic, non-European people. Sontag debunks the first assumption by discussing how important it is to consider the identities of the victims, the perpetrators, and the viewers of the photograph. For example, a picture of a murdered child will elicit different reactions from viewers, depending on the circumstances of the child’s death and upon the viewer’s own perspective. To assume that everyone will come to the same conclusion – that war is terrible and must be stopped – is dangerous, because many people may find that the picture provides the impetus to continue fighting, as it is an example of the utter evil of the enemy. The second assumption, that pictures convey the truth of the situation, is similarly fraught. Sontag gives many instances of historic photographs that were staged or otherwise manipulated by their photographers. That iconic Iwo Jima picture, symbolic of American determination and sacrifice during World War II, was taken after the flag had already been planted on the island. Some type of manipulation is present in most older pictures, but is not as readily apparent in more modern ones, since there are often other photographers and cameramen at the scene to counteract that tendency. This, however, does not mean that modern pictures can convey the whole truth of the matter, as taking a picture necessarily excludes some part of the scene in front of the photographer. Finally, since news media often focus on conflicts in distant places, many people assume that the horrific scenes shown only occur in far-off lands. The pictures of famine victims and of people with wounds and scars from ethnic cleansing often go without the names of those involved, further distancing the viewer from their plight. As the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina have learned to their detriment, though, genocide is not inflicted only upon people with darker complexions. Sontag dissects these, and other, assumptions in her 2003 book on the ethics of war photography.

    • Sheila Jelen says:

      Very nice synopsis. While I agree that she does focus on the way that traumatized victims are easily given full-faced media coverage while American or Western European victims are often not, I don’t think she is trying to argue that popular media is trying to demonstrate that people are only traumatized in other places. It is a more insidious racism at play here.

  9. Elana says:

    According to Susan Sontag, some people assume that war photos tell the truth about war time and thus either influence people to advocate for peace or inspire people to take revenge on the “enemy” displayed. However, Sontag explained that most photographs of war, especially in the earlier years of war photography, were staged. As she said, “If we admit as authentic only photographs that result from the photographer’s having been nearby, shutter open, at just the right moment, few victory photographs will qualify” (56). Meaning most victory photographs are “reconstructions”. This, of course, also applies to photographs of actual war. Many photographers and/or military men pose for the photographs to show a certain side of war. Only after the Vietnam War, with the rise of television coverage of war, did war photography become more authentic.

    As for the idea the people become so affected by war photography that they either jump at the chance to advocate for peace or act out of revenge, Sontag said that because their are so much photographs of gruesome wars, people become desensitized to the photographs and don’t call for any action at all. Because photographs of war are everywhere, especially in every newspaper, the public becomes used to the horrifying images and no longer shows the emotions it might have once shown.

    • Sheila Jelen says:

      These are two important point that she makes, but I am not sure they capture the arc of the larger argument.

  10. megmck12 says:

    Sontag notes the assumption that traumatic photos evoke the same response from people as if they were experiencing or seeing the trauma first hand. Sontag disagrees by showing us how our society is callused to gruesome images–desensitized by the flux of awful images we are met with constantly. Photographs objectify their subjects and since that objectification happens by the spectator (since that is where a photography’s meaning is derived) the massive amount of tragic photos are removed of their subjective emotion. People have a choice with images that they do not with experience–they can choose to gloss over an image, or even refuse to look at it.

    Further, Sontag argues the assumption that photography’s can be used as a device to end war or draw attention to its tragedy and unjustness. A similar argument can be applied. Sontag notes that a photograph is like a maxim; a brief moment easy to remember that you derive meaning from by expounding on it with words (which are not objective, even if people assign objectivity to photos). It’s meaning is defined by the “identification or misidentification” of the spectator. Sontag notes the same photos of children killed in war being circulated on both sides of a conflict. So really, it is not the photograph that that is used as mobilization to end war–it’s the propaganda like words attached to it.

  11. In Regarding the Pain of other by Susan Sontag, she notes many key assumptions that are made about trauma photography. One assumption that she mentions is that people often feel that the images and subjects that they are exposed to in photographs are the explicit things that actually happen in war. Sontag explains that people will believe that what they look at is the truth and these traumatic events are just as tangible in the photographs as they are in real life. Sontag argues against this stating that the images in photographs are not nearly the same as the events in real life. In a way, this belief tainted people’s perception of what war really is. No one can ever claim that they have experienced something that they have seen in photographs. If that were the case, then there would be a significantly higher amount of people with PTSD or shell shock. If someone was going by that idea, then what is the point of traveling or going to see someone you love if you could just look at a picture and “experience” the same thing?

    Another key assumption that she mentions is how people tend to lean toward the side of apathy or non-sympathetic views when witnessing images of war. Sontag notes that it is not necessarily that people do not care about the images that they see of war, rather it is that they have been overly exposed to the image and have become used to the traumatic pictures. People become desensitized to things when they are constantly being exposed to it. Initially, war photography was a bit of a taboo, where people, as well as the government, preferred that the general public should not be exposed to such images, “…censorship-the most extensive kind, self censorship, as well as censorship imposed by the military- has found a large and influential number of apologists (Sontag 65).” Sontag notes that the way that trauma photography is shown to the public needs to be done carefully. If the public is shown too much of something then they will be desensitized, however, if the public is shown too little, then they will remain ignorant.

  12. Emily Schweich says:

    Sontag challenges commonly held assumptions about trauma photography, some of which she argued as truth in her 1977 essay collection On Photography, in Regarding the Pain of Others.
    In particular, Sontag focuses on the issue of war, using the main question addressed in Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas to guide her: “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” While Sontag acknowledges that most people believe war is not preventable, she examines the use of photography to protest and prevent war (3-5).

    In chapter two, Sontag addresses the assumption that photographs represent greater truth than the written and spoken word because they are impartial and bear witness to reality. Some believe that the subjectivity of the photographer compromises the integrity of the photograph. Yet while the photograph itself might be objective, meaning is attached to the photograph throughout history.

    Sontag cites Woolf’s belief that photos are not an argument but simply a crude statement of fact addressed to the eye. They are able to serve as an objective record and a personal testimony. While there is some degree of “framing” involved in choosing what to include and exclude in a photograph, Sontag believes that “eventually, one reads into the photograph what it should be saying” (29). She cites a photograph by David Seymour (“Chim”) taken in Spain in 1936 of a thin woman holding a baby, looking upward. This photo is often interpreted as a depiction of a woman scanning the sky for attacking planes, but in reality, it was taken four months before the war started at an outdoor political meeting. This is just one case in which “memory has altered the image, according to memory’s needs” (30).

    Sontag delves into the difference between protesting and acknowledging war through photography. Should only people who can help make a difference view trauma photography? And how accurate is photography’s portrayal of war? Roger Fenton, the “official” photographer of the Crimean War, was encouraged to capture a positive view of the world, while Mathew Brady, a leading Civil War photographer, had more freedom to capture the true “reality” of the frontlines (49-53). Sontag also addresses the disappointment that many feel at hearing that several notable victory photographs have been staged (53-58). It almost seems as if these staged photographs are not factually acknowledging war, rather; they seek to promote war.

    Finally, in chapter seven, Sontag refutes two assumptions that she made in On Photography: That public attention is steered by attentions of the media, and that a world saturated with images makes us callous. In a “society of spectacle,” each situation must be turned into a spectacle to be interesting to viewers. Sontag turns these assumptions around, stating that photography provides a way for viewers to experience the trauma firsthand. While viewers might not be able to take action to end the tragedy, they can still experience it as if they were seeing it firsthand – the image is merely a medium through which the viewer experiences reality. “Watching up close – without the mediation of the image – is still watching” (117).

    • Sheila Jelen says:

      So how does her challenge to herself get resolved? It seems to me that while she does assert that being desensitized to the photos is not the issue, she doesn’t seem to say that we have not been desensitized. She thinks something more insidious has happened — we are desensitized to the tragedies unfolding in the world, to reality.

  13. Susan Sontag throughout “Regarding the Pain of Others,” there were various assumptions that she pointed out throughout her discourse. Some of the more interesting ones dealt with the actual photograph. How a horrific image in itself cannot be beautiful, when in fact some people argue that there is beauty within everything. It seem almost sacrilegious to argue for the beauty of destruction, yet throughout her novel, Sontag argues for a removal of sentiment. There is also the assumption that trauma photography is in fact just a snap shot taken from such destruction, yet throughout various famous photography, there has been an element of positioning and staged photography that many have forgotten. It seems that Sontag argues that photography in itself is a framing of the world, thus asking us to question what has actually been omitted through the margins and such. Photographs of trauma are supposed to bring about sentimentality and feelings through its very purpose, yet Sontag is conflicted on whether it actually achieves this feat. She argues that by constantly showing these photographs, the spectator is becoming numb to the true horror shown. Yet Sontag also believes that these photographs may also bring about some feeling for the sake of feeling. Such is the example of Japanese subjects sobbing at several performances of a local hero taking seppuku. They have seen this play many times, yet it is no less moving and emotional for them. These singular assumptions cannot change the fact that trauma photography may be more problematic and too freely used in the present society.

  14. maxinesrich says:

    In Susan Sontag’s work, “Regarding the Pain of Others,” Sontag begins with the assumption that war photography can serve as a means to stir its viewers to denounce war, as such grotesque images lend themselves to be broadly applied to denounce human cruelty as a whole, rather than the acts of a single war or violent conflict. Sontag explains, however, that photography can be interpreted in different ways, based on the viewer’s predisposition and previously formed opinion about the conflict, as in the example she gives regarding a theoretical photograph of a child harmed in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, noting that Israelis would interpret the image as violence created by a Palestinian suicide bomber, whereas Palestinians would interpret the image as a Palestinian child fallen victim of Israeli cruelty. Thus, a photograph may encouraged increased militance, vilifying the enemy, depending on the viewer’s background.

    Further on through the text, Sontag explains that war photography is seen as a means of depicting true history for news and records. Such is the beginning of war photography, as during the Civil War, when it no longer was a taboo to record images of death and violence. Sontag notes that, “in the name of realism, one was permitted–required–to show unpleasant, hard facts” (52). Photography is the mark of history, and, in viewing these images, the viewer believes that he understands the tragedy of war and the events that passed. However, Sontag ends powerfully, debunking this assumption by many viewers. She discusses a photographic piece staged and created by photographer Jeff Wall. Wall has placed actors made to look like dead soldiers, as talking and interacting, gruesome images included. However, Sontag notes, the soldiers do not look at the camera, at the viewer. The soldiers have no interest in”us,” as there is nothing they have to say to the viewer. The viewer cannot understand the traumas of war, and never will unless he endures it himself. Thus, war photography is not a means of understanding, as so many viewers interpret it to be.

    • Sheila Jelen says:

      I don’t recall the second discussion. I am glad you pointed it out, because it does strongly indict the experience of the viewer.

  15. joezim1994 says:

    (To quickly confess, I foolishly do not have my book with me so I won’t be able to make any direct quotes.) Susan Sontag, in general, believes that the way people consciously and subconsciously think about traumatic photographs do not sync up. When looking at photographs of war or carnage, we as the viewers tend to think of ourselves as understanding the situation and sympathizing with those pictured. We want to think that looking at the images of suffering make us on the same side as those who suffer, but this is not the case, this cannot ever be the case. The simple fact that we are looking at these pictures distances us irrevocably from the situation. The very idea that we feel closer only brings us farther apart. We feel that we understand simply by looking, yet we can never really know. Looking at traumatic pictures makes us think ourselves with the subject when we are perhaps closer to complicity in the carnage. Sontag speaks of an innate human desire to look on images of people in pain analogous to a desire for images of people naked. We think we are morally upright people by gazing at suffering, while really all we are doing is seeking the pleasure of being shocked. It becomes like a dare, or a feat of courage, being able to stare, to not look away. Shock, Sontag claims, is something we actively seek—still even the shocking can become mundane. By sheer repetition, things that shock inherently lose their power: shock is intrinsically coupled with novelty. It is only when the moments of shock are anchored with a deeper emotional resonance, such as the Japanese story of the 47 ronin, that they retain their potent charge. We also tend to think that images of destruction are a new social incidence, but Sontag reveals that they have been around in art since the time of Da Vinci and Goya. There have always been traumatic images, and it seems they will always pierce us, even if we are not affected the way we think we should be.

  16. sjfrazier015 says:

    In Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag explores the idea that people rely on the media and visual representations of wars and other traumatic events to gain knowledge about the topic. The media creates a representation of an event and people that are disconnected from the actuality of the situation have no other choice, or rather means of knowing any better. Sontag insists that instead of these photographs and media representations of trauma educated the general public on these matters, it is giving people a rather one sided view on topics that tend to be quite multidimensional. People “truly can’t imagine what it was like” yet they depend on visual representations from outside sources to fill them in. Sontag also goes on to say that it is believed traumatic photographs are also ineffective because the general public is being bombarded with so many of these potentially fabricated or exaggerated images, that they tend to be desensitized all together and no longer see human suffering as anything out of the ordinary. She states that people rather know what they are seeing was not meant to be seen than they are disinterested in the gruesome events. One of the best ways I can express this feeling is in the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of the fireman holding a baby after the Oklahoma City bombing. I have seen it a million times and have seen many like it but regardless, this one I try to avoid looking at when given the opportunity. I do not look away because I no longer feel for the people touched by this horror. I look away because I know that no eyes were ever meant to have to witness something like this. It is not the way the world should be. Perhaps that was what Sontag was trying to express.

  17. Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others offers a critical analysis of how mass society interprets and views images of pain and suffering, especially of the misconceptions held towards the nature of these images. Sontag argues that ideas towards the generality of war images, the justifications against war, the authenticity of photographs, the foreignness of pain and suffering and the ability of photographs to create sympathy are largely misconstrued.

    In summary of her arguments, Sontag generally brings up contradictions of how war photography is viewed to express the false assumptions people hold towards it. Sontag argues that trauma photography does not generalize war because different factions use these same photographs to rally opposing sides (10). She claims that war cannot be argued against through imagery of its destructiveness because saying that would dismiss how these imageries can also invoke the justice and valor of certain subjects (12). Further, she debases the popular demand for inartistic, authentic images by pointing out photographs are actually manipulated by the public that sees them instead of their authors (39) and by how only photography of popular and attention-grabbing conflicts is remembered (36). She extends her criticism of how culture affects trauma photography by expressing that photographs of war tend to show pure and unpleasant suffering as foreign and far-away, while domestic suffering is either undocumented or self-censored (66). In a powerful passage that especially touched the writer, Sontag brings up how violence is so often ethnicitized (72); expressing how in the 1990s Europe distanced itself from the Balkans so it could separate itself from its conflicts and horrors (72).

    In her conclusion to her arguments, Sontag finally addresses the way sympathy is treated by and trauma photography. She expresses how this imagery ideally attempts to create an understanding or sympathy in the viewer, and how such feelings actually create a sense of impotence towards what is shown (102). To Sontag, understanding the true pain and suffering in trauma photography is impossible, as its ability to allow remembering (115), or to imagine the suffering through observance (121) does not supplant or replicate the reality of the actual pain of others.

  18. esrayagoub says:

    In Sontag’s discussion of war photos she points out how they are often perceived as fact, but still lack a powerful impact. According to Sontag, the viewer is too distracted by the media influences around the picture, that the fail to notice the trauma that is in it. People also fail to consider the photographer, and the ability that the photographer had to “create” these images, and immediately assume they are fact. In Sontag’s opinion people don’e assume a photographer has as much control as a writer does. Sontag notes how people seem interested in photos of tragedy, but the photos rarely change their opinions on war. Sontag seems to defend this by arguing that people photographs can’t make people understand what other’s went through.

    • Sheila Jelen says:

      I am not sure you have really penetrated the depth of this essay. These points seem marginal to her argument, at best.

  19. Ross Fasman says:

    In Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag introduces that “photographs are a means of making real matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore.” (7) This is especially poignant in times of tragedy where “photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses…or simply the bemused awareness that terrible things happen.” (13) These are the assumptions about trauma photography that most people hold.

    Sontag concludes her novel by proposing that “it is not necessarily better to be moved.” Sontag states that “our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence” because we, as viewers, are in no position to actively engage with the photograph, or were in no position to experience them. (102) Sontag continues to say that “we truly can’t imagine what is was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is and how normal it becomes.” (126) It is in this sense that Sontag comes to the striking realization that the interpretations and reactions we might have to any photograph is very, very superficial, and worse, non-existant.

    • Ross Fasman says:

      Would like to edit my last sentence:

      It is in this sense that Sontag comes ot the striking realization that the interpretations and reactions we might have to any photograph ARE superficial and worse, non existent. By non-existent, I don’t mean that we don’t have any emotional solicitations. By non-existent I content that there is no foundation for actual engagement because we have no way to actually share in the experience–no matter how much we want to believe we actually could. This is the development of Sontag’s argument from “photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses…or simply the bemused awareness that terrible things happen” as having significant merit, to very little meaning, if at all, to the nature of trauma photography.

  20. Sheila Jelen says:

    It would have been helpful had you formulated your response directly as an answer to the question I posed. What are the assumptions she addresses and how does she address them?

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