Susan Sontag – On Regarding the Pain of Others

Susan Sontag – Regarding the Pain of Others

Quite a short book but as one would expect from Sontag, full of interest. I do get a feeling from reading her work at times though that much of her interest in her subject is rather theoretical. This is mainly due to her characteristic dry, academic tone; I sometimes wish that she could show more passion in her writing.

She is far too smart to try and come up with right/wrong classifications, but instead this is a closely argued view of the problems that can arise with conflict imagery. In her earlier book “On Photography” she argued that images of war tended to allow the viewer a distance that made it easier to ignore the implied facts of the images. Going further she said “The feeling of being exempt from calamity stimulates interest in looking at painful pictures, and looking at them suggests and strengthens the feeling that one is exempt”(Sontag,1979:168). In “Regarding the Pain of Others” she modifies this stance by suggesting we should almost regard it as a duty to look at published images of suffering and conflict as this is necessary to understand this suffering. Some of this modification she says is because morally conscious photographers have become much more aware of the manipulating effect that their work has on the viewer, and do their best to avoid cheap sentiment. She mentions Sebastião Salgado as one who has been criticized for creating overly beautiful images of misery. Earlier, not speicifically about Salgado, she says “The photograph gives mixed signals. Stop this it urges. But it also exclaims, What a spectacle!”(Sontag,2004:66)

She makes the point that conflict images can have a numbing effect if the viewer is left with the feeling that nothing can be done to alleviate the suffering. “Making suffering loom larger, by globalizing it, may spur people to feel they ought to ‘care’ more. It also invites them to feel that the sufferings and misfortunes are too vast, too irrevocable, too epic to be much changed by any local political intervention”(Sontag,2004:68). She cites the example of Ron Haberle’s photographs of the My Lai massacre in 1968 as one where this impotence was not an issue. This was a situation that, although too late for the victims, did provoke further opposition to the Vietnam war; something needed to be done and protesting the war was a justified reaction.

As with all photography, presentation is of vital importance. Sontag says that much recent conflict work by conscientious photographers gets criticised due to the diverse way in which it is made available, through gallery presentations, books, and the internet. It is no longer the preserve of news journalism.  It is well-known that gallery spaces adjust the way any art is received and may in these cases detract from the intended anger at the suffering being depicted. Sontag (rightly in my view) suggests that photobooks may be the best way to view these images as this allows the viewer to fully engage with the work in quiet contemplation.


Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography. (New Ed edition) (s.l.): Penguin.

Sontag, S. (2004) Regarding the Pain of Others. (s.l.): Penguin.

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