This study focusses mainly on photographs of the pain of others, in all kinds of distress, but mainly in war situations.
Sontag often refers to Goya’s series of etchings about the atrocities of war (Napoleon’s army in Spain). These were expressly made to shock the beholder. However, Goya was an exception. Most artists continued to please their customers and to make agreeable landscapes and portraits.
War images became more available through the ascent of photography. Photos of the trenches in World War I are well known, but real war journalism started in the Spanish Civil War (most notably with Robert Capa).
Sontag analyses in depth all aspects of this showing of pain: the feelings and rights of the victim, the attitude of the photographer, the very complex sentiments of the beholder, the motives of editors, galleries, musea, etc. Not to mention the use for political propaganda.
It becomes obvious that images of suffering are not easy to “use”. All images are surrounded by others, are shown within a certain context, appear on a tv-screen where they can be zapped away, etc.
“Certain photographs – emblems of suffering, such as the snapshot of the little boy in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, his hands raised, being herded to the transport to a death camp – can be used like memento mori, as objects of contemplation to deepen one’s sense of reality; as secular icons, if you will. But that would seem to demand the equivalent of a sacred or meditative space in which to look at them. Space reserved for being serious is hard to come by in a modern society, whose chief model of a public space is the mega-store (which may also be an airport or a museum).”
The equivalent of a sacred or meditative space… that makes me think: why don’t our churches show us the atrocities of war in the right context? For political reasons?
Sontag’s conlusion seems to be that while images can have a big impact (photographs of the Vietnam War have indeed fueled anti war manifestations), the reading of a serious and gripping book might be more effective and lasting. “A narrative seems likely to be more effective than an image,” she writes. And that’s what I think too.