Review: Regarding the Pain of Others


Perhaps it is a bit strange that the first work I read by Susan Sontag is also her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others. I’ve read a couple of excerpts of her writing over the years, but never a complete book or even a whole essay. To be honest, I was more than a little intimidated since she was such a brilliant theorist. But then the small library back home put this second book of Sontag about photography (after On Photography, 1977)  on a special shelf and I felt that this was a message for me.

And I’m so happy I went to the library that day, Regarding the Pain of Others was a fantastic read and I found Sontag’s writing to be clear and concise and her arguments convincing. This work focuses on war photography and especially on our reaction to those photos. Because, in our time of mass media and daily overdose of images viewed from the comfort of our mostly Western homes, how are we to respond?

Luckily for me (not having read On Photography), Sontag begins this book by looking at early instances of war photography. Fenton for example, who was sent to the Crimea to take photos to gather more positive reactions of the public to this war. Or Gettysburg, another instance of early war photography, which was also notable for the fact that the photos were mostly staged or posed (because taking photographs was still a rather slow and complicated technique). According to Sontag, it’s during the Vietnam war that war photography and its influence changes dramatically. Coverage was fast-paced and brought a remote war into American (and the world’s) households. One result of this new war photography that managed to capture so much horror and pain was self-censure. I think often it was a case of  ‘”shooting” first and then stopping to think about just what atrocities were frozen in an image. Looking at photos makes every viewer a voyeur, but is it justifiable to capture the victims while they are suffering or dying and to confront an audience with them?

The most famous war photographs are not only remarkable for the horror they capture but also for their aesthetic. Photos have a dual role, they are a source of information as well as works of art. And usually we take both roles into consideration when we look at a photo, even or especially one that shows the pain and suffering of others. We can be both repulsed by the atrocities of war and attracted by the beauty of the photo. But intriguingly, war photography should not be too aesthetic, too beautiful. There is a fine line there somewhere, because a photo that is too aesthetic draws attention to itself as a medium and shifts attention away from the content, from the pain of others. I looked at a lot of war photography while reading this book (I looked the examples mentioned by Sontag up on the internet, because one thing that is not included in this book is photos. Not one single picture apart from the cover), and certainly struggled with this. Often, very aesthetic photos grabbed my attention more, but the moment I became aware of the photo as a medium, I looked at it differently. Usually I did not resent the photo for that, because the attention was still on the suffering, but perhaps it was more powerful and terrifying because of its beauty. However, there are also other instances of war photography, ones that look amateurish and “real” and are powerful exactly because it.

Photos are always constructions, may they be staged or authentic, and the same photo means different things to different people. The same photo can be presented as pro and anti-war, as senseless suffering or heroic sacrifice:

The material gathered by photographers, which they may think of as unmasking the conflict, is of great use. Absent such a protest, the same antiwar photograph may be read as showing pathos, or heroism, admirable heroism, in an unavoidable struggle that can be concluded only by victory or by defeat. The photographer’s intentions do not determine the meaning of the photograph, which will have its own career, blown by the whims and loyalties of the diverse communities that have use for it.

The message of a photograph is not fixed, standing on its own, but the viewers bring their own experience to it and give it meaning. Often, looking at such a photo, we are pushed in a certain direction by an “explanatory” line accompanying the photo, or perhaps the political leaning of the newspaper or magazine in which we come across it. Text is more precise I think, but of course when it’s taken out of context, anything goes.

Something I love about this work is how much it is not limited to American war experiences, Sontag does not just focus on the Vietnam war or the war on terrorism. She also mentions the Bosnia war which is the first war I really remember (as it seemed to be going on all of my childhood) and I can still see the images that were constantly on tv back then (a city, darkness brightened by greenish flashes of warfare) in my mind’s eye. And as far as I remember, there weren’t a lot of images shown of victim’s. Sontag takes notice of this use images of the power of weapons, especially weapons which can be controlled from afar, but we rarely are confronted by the media coverage of the effects of this technology.

Sontag certainly won me over with this small volume! Visual culture is a defining factor of our time I think and looking at the suffering of others and then, probably disgusted at one’s powerlessness, quickly looking away is probably something every one of us does every day. It’s fantastic to read Sontag’s thoughts about it, and it makes me reflect more on my own interaction with photography. At first I felt a bit bowled over by her arguments, but I’m happy to say that I’m now recovering and my inner skeptic is back. I’m always completely terrified that someone else’s thoughts will sound so convincing that they take over and I’ll stop doubting and making up my own mind. I know, I’m weird!


Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll add a link!

21 thoughts on “Review: Regarding the Pain of Others

  1. You’re not weird, Bina. 🙂
    That sounds like a very interesting read. I saw it at library months ago and I too was intimidated, probably because I’ve never read anything by Sontag, although I heard very good things about her. I think I’ll get this book next time I go to the library (=tomorrow).

  2. This sounds absolutely amazing – and what a great review you wrote! I kind of want to run to the library site and reserve it right now.

  3. I tried reading On Photography last year and had no idea what I was getting myself into. I ended up quitting after maybe 20 pages! I suppose I’ll have to give her another chance eventually, and then I’ll turn to this one instead.

    1. I don’t know about On Photography, maybe Sontag’s style changed over the years, but this one is very accessible and fascinating. So I really hope you’ll give her another chance 🙂

  4. Spectacular review! I look at war photographs and was struck by the horror for the horror committed itself. I don’t think I ever see any of those as aesthetic but poignant I would say.

    I suppose there might be war related photography which are a beauty. Like an unmarked grave or cemetery of war heroes, ex-war zones, but if the first impression of the photo is horror, I’ll probably wouldn’t notice that it is beautiful. (Not sure if I make sense!) 😉

    Hope I get to read a book by Susan Sontag one day.

    1. Gosh, thanks Jo! 🙂

      It’s very interesting to hear your thoughts on war photography. You might want to try looking at amateur photos and then compare them with professional ones (like Here is New York, an archive of 9/11 photos). But it’s kind of great that you really focus on the atrocities depicted in the photo!

    1. Thank you, glad you enjoyed it. And hope you’ll enjoy the book as well, the content is as fascinating and horrific as the cover!

  5. Awesome review, Bina! I feel that your review might be more beautiful than the book 🙂

    I didn’t know that there were photographs taken during the Crimean war and during the battle of Gettysburg. That is really interesting!

    I liked very much your observation – “Photos are always constructions, may they be staged or authentic, and the same photo means different things to different people. The same photo can be presented as pro and anti-war, as senseless suffering or heroic sacrifice” – beautifully put! I also liked very much your comment – “At first I felt a bit bowled over by her arguments, but I’m happy to say that I’m now recovering and my inner skeptic is back”.

    Two of my favourite news photographs are the one related to the Tiananmen Square massacre (a man standing in front of a moving tank) and the National Geographic cover picture which had a Afghan woman with haunting eyes.

    I agree with you that text is more precise than a photograph – I remember John Carey arguing in his book ‘What Good are the arts?’ that because of this reason, a work of literature is better than a work of art (on canvas).

    I haven’t read any book or article by Susan Sontag before. I want to try one of her books now. She looks like a wonderful writer, from your review.

    1. Aww, thanks so much, Vishy, but I promise the book is absolutely amazing 🙂

      Early war photography is quite fascinating, they really had to stop and set everything up (including the bodies etc), nothing spontaneous about those photos.

      Glad you liked those passages. It’s really amazing how one photo can be interpreted so differently. I think writers have a bit more control over their texts (but then I’m a word freak).

      I really do think that it’s difficult to take a step back and question arguments that are made so convincingly as Sontag’s, but then I usually recover when my uni training kicks in 🙂

      I know the photos you mentioned, especially the Afghan girl is very impressive. It’s a perfect example for the duality of photos, I think. But often I feel that black and white photography impresses me even more, it lends such beauty and weight to a photo, even if what is captured is something ordinary.

      ‘What Good are the arts?’ sounds great, I’ll have to look into it. Although I’m already pro text 😉

      I really hope you’ll enjoy Sontag’s writing, and hey, now I can recommend a book of essays to you for a change! 🙂

  6. Sontag always conjures the mind to “THINK NOW!” I have one of her books on my shelf and now will have to reread her after your review.

    Another bravo piece. Girl you do me proud. Keep writing 🙂

    1. Absolutely! 🙂 Which one is it? Please write a review of it 🙂 (also, your making me blush with all the compliments! THANK YOU!)

  7. It sounds great. The cover photo is very horrific! Not one for the train? War photographers do straddle two worlds. They capture the atrocities and yet, while they are witnesses and are a part of it all, they are quite powerless. The photos may tell us the truth but I don’t think I could ever sit by and photograph a dying person.

    1. Better not read it on the train 🙂 I really can’t imagine taking photos of dying people either! But you make a good point about the powerlessness!

  8. Bina, you are such a great writer! I’m happy to be one of your followers.

    I’ve never read any books on photography, especially war photography, but it does sound fascinating. It would certainly be a refreshing change of pace from the fiction novels I read. For someone who goes on and on about reading diversely, I’m certain failing to do so when it comes to genres and types go books!

    1. Aww you are too kind, Naz! Glad you enjoyed the review. It was my first read on war photography, too, and I think a great intro. With the mainstream media and our very visual world I think it’s important to understand how we are presented news and our ways of looking.
      We can’t read everything 🙂 I think your focus on diverse authors is so timely and important! I’ve gone through phases of hardly reading anything but mysteries, it all depends on my mood 🙂

  9. Hi
    I know it’s been a while since you wrote this rewiew but I just found it by Google. I’m from abroad and my English is not perfect but I am trying to to explain myself as clearly as possible.
    I was touched by your words and your sincere particular about this book. Your honest approach does not not only reveals how a brilliant writer and reader you are but how confident you are as a person as well. Usually reviewers keep their genuine thoughts in a safer place and seem to be more concerned about their own reputation than on giving out their own personal opinions.
    Your last message is brilliant and in my opinion the success of the educational system is to make people capable of creating their own minds and souls.
    I bought this book several years ago and I just sent it to a close friend of mine who is in jail for political reasons and on a hunger’s strike. I’m from Barcelona, in the north east of Spain.
    There are so much pain inside the walls of a jail… Invisible pain, though.
    Thank you

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