During a recent appearance on Bill Moyers’s PBS news program “Now” (4/04), Susan Sontag ruefully noted the timeliness of her new book about pictures of the victims of violence in general and of war in particular. It had, she admitted, “an obscenely topical character.”
This sequel to Sontag’s masterful On Photography (1977) arrived even as we were being flooded by the latest and most graphic wave of war photos in our history; and, like the six groundbreaking essays in her first volume, these nine brief, loosely linked pieces shed some clear and disturbing light on the American appetite for images that “shock and awe.” (As television news producers say, “If it bleeds, it leads.”)
Sontag is no more a photographer now than she was a quarter-century ago; nor has she changed her severely intellectual method of discussing photographs without providing a single illustration. But now, as then, her voice is little short of magisterial; and we have no choice but to pay attention.
Her approach, once again, is skeptical and demythologizing. “Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave,” she wrote in 1977, “still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth.” While acknowledging the fantastic hold that photographs have on our imagination, Sontag has always pointed to the alienating features of the process. “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed,” she wrote. And “There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera.”
All this is even truer of war photography. Sontag considers war the “largest crime” of all (she voices, but does not elaborate on, her agreement with Virginia Woolf that “the killing machine has a gender, and it is male”). She admits that war photographs have a unique, irreplaceable documentary value. (Speaking on “Now,” Sontag said that her life was changed forever when she first saw the famous U.S. Army film reportage from Dachau and Bergen-Belsen.) But beyond that she sees a lot of sloppy and self-deceptive thinking that she aims to expose.
War photos, for example, “create the illusion of consensus.” That is, they (briefly anyhow) disturb or horrify the spectator, who self-righteously condemns the cruelty they depict—and then moves on to other things. “No ‘we’,” Sontag insists, “should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pains.”
First of all, the spectator is, by definition, safely removed, always in space and often in time, from the agonies he or she is witnessing. Consciously or otherwise, the viewer thinks, “This is not happening to me.” Pity is cheap, unless it issues, as it seldom does, in concrete intervention to alleviate suffering. Sooner or later, emotional overload kicks in, and we look the other way. So prevalent is human egocentricity that survivors of bombing attacks, Sarajevans for example, revolt at comparisons between their unique torment and the traumas of Chechens or Rwandans: “It is intolerable to have one’s sufferings twinned with anybody else’s.”
Beyond that, Sontag warns against naïve literalism in looking at war photos. Some of the most celebrated ones, such at the pictures of Civil War dead by Matthew Brady’s assistants, the Rough Riders’ charge up San Juan Hill, the immortal icon of the six G.I.s raising the flag on Iwo Jima or the execution with a pistol by General Nguyen Ngoc Loan of a Vietcong suspect on the streets of Saigon, were all in one way or another posed or redone. And pictures need captions and narratives; they are not, as competing coverage of the war in Iraq by Al-Jazeera and Fox News has proved, self-explanatory.
Above all, despite the vivid illusions that pictures, especially moving pictures, conjure up, they do not initiate us into the actual world of other people’s on-the-ground suffering. Sontag is speaking here from personal experience. Though she barely mentions it in these pages, she spent almost three years (1992-95) in the war-torn desolation of Sarajevo. Addressing all spectators of war photography, she concludes her last essay with the emphatic reproach: “We don’t get it. We can’t truly imagine what it was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand, can’t imagine. That’s what every soldier, and every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire, and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby, stubbornly feels. And they are right.”
But for all her strictures—against the objectification of the persons portrayed, the voyeurism of spectatorship, the supposed (but exaggerated) empathetic deadening it gives rise to, etc.—Sontag attacks critics who dismiss all images of violence as banal and unreal. On the contrary, they play a crucial role in reminding us not to forget. “Heartlessness and amnesia,” she writes, “seem to go together.” At the very least—and in view of the countless wars that have been the rule, rather than the exception, in human life—this is no small advantage. “To paraphrase several sages: ‘Nobody can think and hit someone at the same time.’”
And no one who reads Sontag’s lucid, trenchant prose is liable to forget her vigorous, “obscenely topical” argument.