Images of violence can desensitize us, but they can also remind us of our common bond.
A photograph of a group of suffering people: We look at them, and from the sadness of their expressions and gestures, we know something awful has happened. But finding out exact details, through the photograph alone, is more difficult. Who these sufferers are, why they suffer, who or what caused the suffering and what ought to be done about it: These are entirely more complex questions, questions hard to answer only by looking at the photograph.
Susan Sontag, probably the most influential writer on the intersection of violence and photography, didn’t buy this argument. With forensic prose, she cut through complacent apologias for war photography and set photojournalistic images of violence squarely in the context of viewers’ voyeurism. This was the argument advanced in her 1977 essay collection, “On Photography.” Sontag believed that a certain passivity was inescapable in spectatorship, and that any image of violence would be tainted by this passive distance. “Through the camera people become customers or tourists of reality,” she wrote. Looking at those images, she seemed to suggest, was both self-absorbed and self-absolving.
It suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world. But it is absurd to identify the world with those zones in the well-off countries where people have the dubious privilege of being spectators, or of declining to be spectators, of other people’s pain, just as 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.
The piece ends:
Proof of this is elusive. We’ve all seen war photographs that are mere grist for the journalistic mill. Some photographers are addicted to war; some viewers are voyeurs. And yet photography is not limited by these ways of seeing. Photography works and doesn’t work, it is tolerable and intolerable, it confounds and often exceeds our expectations.
Conflict photography arises out of a huge set of moving variables that in unpredictable, unreliable but unignorable ways help make the demands of justice visible. Taking photographs is sometimes a terrible thing to do, but often, not taking the necessary photo, not bearing witness or not being allowed to do so, can be worse.