Against Photography: Susan Sontag and the Violent Image

By Sorensen, Sue | Afterimage, May-June 2004 | Go to article overview

Against Photography: Susan Sontag and the Violent Image


Sorensen, Sue, Afterimage


In a December 2002 New Yorker essay entitled "Looking at War," recently published in revised form as the book Regarding the Pain of Others, American social critic Susan Sontag begins by recalling Virginia Woolf's 1938 anti-war polemic Three Guineas. Three Guineas is a bitterly angry and conflicted essay. Woolf spends 250 pages problematizing all aspects of women's participation in pacifist protest. But ultimately Woolf never abandons her plaintive refrain: "How are we to prevent war?" Sontag immediately distances herself from Woolf's pacifism. She writes instead: "Who believes today that war can be abolished? No one, not even pacifists" (82).

At the heart of Three Guineas is Woolf's confidence that photographs of the Spanish Civil War will convince decent people to agree with her that "War is an abomination; a barbarity; war must be stopped" (21). The photographs of corpses and ruined landscapes that Spanish Republicans have sent abroad are statements of brutal "fact," says Woolf several times, and that fact is simply "evil" (21, 260), she says. It is surprising to see this leading figure of modern fiction, who famously celebrated life as "a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope" ("Modern Fiction" 150), putting aside her suggestive experimental style when it comes to war. There is no ambivalence, no metaphor, no stream of consciousness here. A photograph is a fact. War is evil.

Susan Sontag has written often about the power of photography, particularly in her 1977 book On Photography, a book that W.J.T. Mitchell thinks should have been titled Against Photography, Photography, said Sontag then, is forceful, but she saw no certain way of harnessing that power for moral purpose. She warned of the dangers of the photograph: "Images transfix. Images anesthetize" (20). The most devastating visual experience of her life was seeing photographs of concentration camps at the age of 12. Her conclusion about the experience was mixed: "something went dead; something is still crying." Sontag wrote:

To suffer is one thing; another thing is living with the photographed
images of suffering, which does not necessarily strengthen conscience
and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them. (20)

In her recent essay "Looking at War" Sontag states that she has a quarrel with some of her conclusions in On Photography. Her attitude is now certainly sadder, her descriptions more concrete, her approach less that of the aesthete. Yet her current conclusions are not clear. Her highest praise in "Looking at War" is for Jeff Wall's 1992 photograph, "Dead Troops Talk," a staged work that presents a visionary, imagined experience of war. At another point she tells us that several famous actual photographs of war--Robert Capa's of the Spanish Civil War, Matthew Brady's of the American Civil War--may have been staged (91-92). These points divert the viewer's consideration of violence, transforming it into musing about artifice. Although Sontag derides postmodern views, popularly accessible through movies like The Matrix, that "the vast maw of modernity has chewed up reality and spat the whole mess out as images" (97), she eventually retreats into a sort of quietism that is not that different from the ideas of On Photography, ideas that Walter Kendrick once criticized for their "esthetic impressionism" (405). While she is disturbed by a display of photographs of black victims of lynching that she views in a New York gallery in 2000, her response is limited to a barrage of questions:

What is the point of exhibiting these pictures? To awaken indignation?
To make us feel "bad"; that is, to appall and sadden? To help us mourn?
Is looking at such pictures really necessary, given that these horrors
lie in a past remote enough to be beyond punishment? Are we the better
for seeing these images? Do they actually teach us anything? Don't they
rather just confirm what we already know (or want to know)? 

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