by Andrew E. Nelson
"We understand events through narrative, but we remember events through photographs,"
said Susan Sontag, in her late-October lecture, Regarding Other People's Pain: War and Photography,
at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
War photography was the stated topic of the lecture, but Sontag, her trademark silver stripe now largely faded into a silvering background, told the audience that she was speaking from a work that was very much in progress. At the center of that work (or at one of its centers) is an ongoing reconsideration of some of the arguments from her 1977 essay collection, On Photography.
She described that reconsideration as one that was overtly inspired by September n, 2001, and by other recent experiences. Her audience, just six weeks after the attacks, was still awash in images, still and video, of the attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. CNN was still broadcasting, every few minutes, footage of airplanes winging into silver buildings. Lest we forget why we were watching.
Sontag spoke without visual aids, and the lecture roamed across a number of subjects -reflecting what Edward Hirsch described in his introduction as her "keen and scrupulous intellect" and "insatiable curiosity." For the purposes of this essay, I have broken her talk into a few loose themes; they should not necessarily be understood to follow the sequence or structure of her talk.
In the first minutes and hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center and as stunned news-gathering organizations dug into the extended improvisation that would become months of exhaustive coverage, New Yorkers on the street were asked what they had seen and what they felt.
And, stunned, they described where they were when they heard, mentioned acquaintances, friends, in-laws and spouses unaccounted for, gave inarticulate voice to confusion about an event without precedent.
"It was like ...," said countless witnesses, and they mentioned movies, Hollywood thrillers with big budgets and big stars and the most special of effects. And across the nation, even through a fog of confusion and grief, the anxious cognoscenti cringed and clucked and spoke of the triviality of the references, and described a nation whose ability to discern and experience reality - the gravest of reality, reality in its ugliest cloak - was permanently crippled by too much big-e Entertainment.
On Photography, Sontag's seminal 1977 book of essays, had helped to articulate this mindset. In this lecture she summarized her 1977 argument: that "in an image-saturated world, images make us less able to respond to other images. They transfix, anesthetize and after repeated exposure become less real; the attraction wears off." In her lecture, however, Sontag drew away from this argument. When people invoked the spectacular, she said - even the commonly spectacular, like Hollywood action films - to explain their horror at the September 11th attacks, it didn't make their feelings any less acute. Rhetorically ham-handed, perhaps, but not any less authentic or significant.
Furthermore, Sontag's own feelings about September 11th weren't changing, despite heavy exposure to images of what had transpired -she wasn't inured to the idea of passenger planes flying into the World Trade Center; she wasn't feeling better, and she wasn't feeling less sensitive to the power of the images.
Another element of the argument against the making (or at least the distribution) of images of suffering, death, war and mayhem holds that such pictures are by their nature obscene, appealing to the basest of tastes and instincts, and for that reason should be kept from the public eye. For a recent example, CBS News was roundly criticized for its decision to broadcast video footage of people plummeting from the burning towers of the World Trade Center.
A searing still image of a man falling (or leaping) from a tower appeared in The New York Times on September 12th. The man, recognizably burned, wearing black pants, boots, a white shirt, fell headfirst past the shining steel of the tower. I studied the picture intently. Was my interest prurient - in response to a pornographic fascination with a damaged person? Was my interest rooted in the physics of the fall, the way the man was falling head-first, arms back, right leg tucked jauntily? Was it curiosity about mortality, Hamlet examining not Yorick's skull, but his face as the clown drew his last breath?
It was probably all of the above. Sontag pointed out that human curiosity about death and the dead is nothing new, and nothing new as a topic for examination, either. In the Republic, Book IV, Plato used the example of Leontius, walking past the city walls and caught by the sight of the bodies of executed criminals.
"... For a time he resisted and veiled his head, but overpowered in despite of all by his desire, with wide staring eyes he rushed up to the corpses and cried [to his eyes]. There, ye wretches, take your fill of the fine spectacle!"
It is a telling and utterly contemporary look at the coexistence of desire and revulsion in the human heart, provoked by a single stimulus. The publisher Benedikt Taschen has made this balancing act into a commercial niche, publishing richly printed books of photographs depicting fetishistic sexuality, post-mortem documentation, blood-spattered murder scenes and the like, lightly veneered with scholarly essays. But the shoppers who fill his Paris book boutique and thumb through his display copies aren't reading the essays. I didn't, anyway.
REALITY, TRANSMITTED (REALER THAN REAL)
Sontag posed a question about the photographing of war: to what extent is war made real because of photographs? Or more broadly, to what extent does war enter our consciousness and become a factor in our thinking and our behavior as a result of photographs? Sontag used the example of warfare in post-colonial Africa to assert that photographs are required for an event to exist. She asserted that the western world knows about the horrors of Biafra, Rwanda and Sierra Leone through the trail of catastrophic photojournalism that tracked them; Angola, however, is less real to us, as little photographic evidence escaped that conflict.
The history of warfare in the age of photography would seem to bear out this assertion. While photographs were made of the Crimean War (1854-1856), the American Civil War was the first in which photographs were taken that depicted death on a grand scale, and that were then widely reproduced and distributed, as in (Alexander) Gardener's Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War (1866). Such clashes as the Battle of Antietam (or at least its aftermath) were recorded, in large-plate detail, and the necessarily abstract figure of "20,000 casualties" became attached to swollen overcoated corpses lying in the mud.
But for technological reasons and because of the formal dance of photojournalism and wartime censorship, the crowning moment for contemporary war photojournalism would come in the Vietnam War, when photographers were given largely free rein to record the conflict and its costs. The Vietnam War was brought tidily home in Newsweek and Time, and through film footage broadcast across dining room tables at home. And through such reportage an independent view of what transpired there made it back to the States, playing a role in the antiwar movement that is difficult to overstate. Photojournalism helped to make Vietnam a very Real conflict, introducing a level of confusion about that war - debate about the nature of mid-century American military and foreign policy - that has not appreciably receded in the ensuing decades.
Sontag pointed out that compellingly graphic depictions of misery and suffering - like that of civilians killed and wounded during Vietnam -are nothing new, and predate by millennia the invention of photography. Religious art, for example, with its depictions of Christ crucified and myriad saints in mid-martyrdom, spares no detail in their overt effort to educate and convert. These renderings do not, however, depict the sufferings of Christ and St. Sebastian as something that should be stopped; rather, they celebrate the suffering. That suffering is, after all, a necessary element of the holiness of any martyr.
Goya, said Sontag, did something different. His series, The Disasters of War, depicts the carnage of the Peninsular War, crying out in protest through graphic depictions, circa 1808-1814, of the human toll of Napoleon's invasion of Spain. Unlike the religious art that preceded it, these drawings depicted human suffering in wartime as something unequivocally bad that should be stopped. Sontag makes an explicit connection between Goya and contemporary photojournalism: an activist impulse. (In one crucial difference, The Disasters of War, were only published - as engravings - in the 18605; in contemporary photojournalism, the lag between the making of a picture and its publication is closer to five hours than five decades.)
In 1993, Sontag spent time in Sarajevo, living, along with the loose corps of photojournalists there, in the shell-battered but relatively secure Holiday Inn. These photojournalists were motivated by the desire to show the world what was happening in the disintegrating Yugoslavia, and in that way provoke the international community to some sort of action. In her talk, Sontag drew a straight line from Goya, through the photographers of the Spanish Civil War, through Vietnam-era photo-journalists, through (in her words) the "catastrophe of post-colonial Africa" all the way to the Sarajevo press corps and today's stars of activist photojournalism: Sebastiao Salgado, James Nachtwey, Gilles Peress, Ron Haviv.
A work in progress doesn't necessarily beget solid conclusions. But Sontag left her audience with a few thoughts. She said that while it may be true that the world is overfilled with things that are awful, and that we are "invited to respond to everything," does it necessarily mean that we are responding to less? And Sontag answered that, "No, the opposite is probably true."
Sontag also posited that, "It is a goal in itself to understand that humans are capable of inflicting tremendous cruelty, and that no one has a right to ignorance - ignorance may even be a moral defect." And the role of photographs? "Photographs can't do the moral or intellectual work for us, but they can start us on our way."
In an aside, Sontag discussed the tension between photography and realism, and the conundrum that photographs are instinctively understood to depict what actually happened, rather than an individual's highly selective view of the event. Goya's engravings are understood as his version of what happened; photographs, however, can't possibly lie. In the latter misunderstanding lies the practically limitless power of photography to expose and obscure the truth, whatever it might turn out to be.