Photographs of war are effective in showing the true calamity and destruction of war. However, photographs of war, and of non-combatant casualties specifically, don’t necessarily show the horrible moral injustice of war. The question is: is this violence justified? Moreover, it eliminates the ability to discern and categorize the casualties, especially when the dead are mutilated, so it creates a particular empathetic struggle and fear when confronted with the moral implications of the photo. What’s most interesting, in my opinion, is when Sontag poses the question of “Whose deaths are not being shown” in these photos.
Photographs of war bring up the question of the value of violence in society, the gendered nature of warfare, and the narrow marginalizing effect that photographs of this sort can have when they choose to exclude other victims.
The execution photo of Fou Tchou-Li, the last person executed via Ling Chi in Qing dynasty China, illuminates the pleasure we might feel in looking at those suffering as a sort of twisted reflection of the ‘ecstatic’ spiritual transformation the victim undergoes from life and corporeality to death and the release of the body. This comparison then broadens to describe how modern society is mixing violence and pleasure as well as mayhem and entertainment in the form of mass media like video games and violent cinema. This constant bombardment with portrayals and interactions with suffering can be seen as a kind of “moral or emotional anesthesia”.
Pleasure and other mixed or dulled emotions, when confronted with these images, is a reflection of the anger and frustration we feel due to a compromised ability to empathize with the victims.
An aversion to these images betrays immaturity, since one is too morally inferior to have really questioned the scope of human depravity. At the same time, over-indulgence in memory of past historical inequities, particularly to those suffered by the now dead, may betray an immaturity in dwelling in suffering. Do we even have a right to view the suffering of others from a safe distnace that eliminates the true magnitutude of injustice, danger, and chaos of this suffering? On another note: “some people’s suffering has a lot more intrinsic value to an audience… than the sufferings of others”.
Immature responses to these images betray a sort of “moral defectiveness”, because it shows that the individual has not truly wrestled with the question of ‘how deep is the well of human depravity’; whereas one can just as easily descend into a worship or burial in past greivances if one never lets go, such as the “Serbs” and “Irish”.