By: Caison Gray
Sontag starts her book by discussing Virginia Woolf’s response to a London lawyer who questioned the reason behind war and how we can prevent armed responses. Woolf points to the difference between men and women, that men start, participate in, and are excited about the idea of war while typically women do not support war. Woolf used photos to have a conversation the lawyer about war and the outcomes. Photos from war are generally comparative and without captions, it is hard to know which war is shown in the photo. It is not uncommon for people to think that photos of war are staged, acting as propaganda. Sontag also mentions the question of what we are missing from the photos not shown.
Photos are powerful, deliberate messages, but they can be interpreted differently depending on an individual.
There is an innate human desire to see gruesome things and to view the pain/mutilation of others. Sontag compares this “natural desire” to being similar to “natural sympathy.” Photos of suggestive circumstances play different roles depending on the individual viewing them. An individual could feel multiple ways: an internal strengthening, an internal awakening, a sense of numbness. Sontag acknowledges that it can be difficult for people to be affected by situations that are not directly happening to them. Having conflict is a normality in our world, and as long as we are sympathetic, we are not going to feel as though we have any part in another’s suffering.
Humans enjoy viewing the painful experiences as others, but they feel no responsibility as long as they also feel sympathy to those affected.
Memory is the only relation we can have to the dead, and once we make peace, the dead are forgotten. In our world today, we are consistently being shown horrific stories/images on the news. However, our ability to better think about people far away who are suffering is unaffected. Our smugness and ability to not do actively do anything about these foreign situations is why photos from these areas are so impactful. Unfortunately, even though we do look at the photos and watch the news stories, we are still acting as bystanders. There is nothing wrong with empathizing and experiencing pain and suffering of others from a distance, but even though we are then thinking about the situation, nothing is directly benefitting those being harmed.
It is necessary to remember, and reflect on, the horrors of the past to not forget them, which photos allow us to do no matter the distance they occurred.