Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

How images fail to convey war's horror

Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag, Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 132 pp., $20

March 16, 2003|Neal Ascherson | Neal Ascherson is the author of numerous books, including "Black Sea," "The King Incorporated: Leopold the Second and the Congo" and "Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland."

War is coming toward us, once again. How to prevent it, when the warriors have slammed shut their minds like visors, is becoming an empty question. How it will be fought is more important: How much blood, whose blood? But there is a third question: How will it be remembered? And this question has an answer. People all over the world, though possibly not in Iraq, will remember it by a photograph, by one single-image frame. We can know that already, even though we do not know who the photographer will be or what will be the subject.

The Gulf War of 1991 usually prompts one image: not liberated Kuwait or burning oil-wells, but the calcined mask of what had been an Iraqi soldier, caught in his truck in the great "turkey-shoot" on the Basra Road. The Holocaust is the (Nazi) photograph of the small boy in a cloth cap, with his hands up. The Spanish Civil War is Robert Capa's falling soldier. As Susan Sontag explains in her new book, this is how people in modern times remember: "War-making and picture-taking are congruent activities." And she quotes Ernst Junger, "aesthete of war," on the deep connection between shooting a picture and shooting a man or woman. "It is the same intelligence [he wrote]whose weapons of annihilation can locate the enemy to the exact second and meter that labors to preserve the great historical event in fine detail." He did not make that remark in the Gulf in 2003, surrounded by smart missiles and network TV teams, but in Germany in 1930.

Susan Sontag's "On Photography" was published in 1977. It became, almost instantly, a bible. To this day, it remains a prescribed textbook in almost every serious photography course in the world, and a venerated reference work for media students and all who try to understand the force of imagery. But its readers are not just the university young, or ambitious intellectuals constructing new theories about reality as spectacle. The men and women at the sharp end -- those you find edging up bullet-scarred streets with Nikons dangling around their flak jackets -- have read Sontag too. They ask themselves constantly why they are doing the work they do, and to whom they are doing it, and whether anyone cares whether they do it or not. If any one person provided the words for that self-questioning, it was Susan Sontag.

She wrote that book when the images of Vietnam were still fresh. Now, as the photographers line up for accreditation to yet another war ("embedding" journalists is the military word for the attempt to control what the world will be allowed to read and see of it), she has returned to the subject in "Regarding the Pain of Others." Much has happened in the 25-year interval, and some things have changed. Susan Sontag, for example, has changed her mind. During that interval, she spent time in Sarajevo under siege, and that experience seems to have enriched her thinking in two ways.

It has hardened her belief in "reality." She is more impatient with the post-modern insistence that only the spectacle is real -- that "there are only representations: media." She rejects the "distinguished French day-trippers to Sarajevo" who announced that the war would be won not on the ground but in the media. They posed as sophisticates. But "to speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world ... it is absurd to generalize about the ability to respond to the sufferings of others on the basis of the mind-set of those consumers of news who know nothing at first hand about war and massive injustice and terror."

Secondly, Sontag has revised some of her earlier pessimism about popular responses. In "On Photography," she deplored the numbing, diminishing effect of repeated exposure to images of horror. Today she is more discriminating. "As much as they create sympathy, I wrote, photographs shrivel sympathy. Is this true? I thought it was when I wrote it. I 'm not so sure now. What is the evidence ... ?" She thinks today that this effect is mainly confined to the impact of television, whose images "are, by definition, images of which, sooner or later, one tires." The whole point of television is that it is designed to satiate and exhaust the viewer; "it is normal to switch channels; to become restless, bored." Her faith in the still photograph, in contrast, revives, and she remarks, brilliantly, that "when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite. Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|