The first chapter of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others describes the way in which photographic representations of suffering affect emotions which ultimately determine actions. Sontag disagrees with the popular notion that images of suffering are a mode to decrease future suffering. If one sees images of people in positions of pain, they are less likely to cause pain to others. Sontag argues that the problem with this notion is that photographs can be used in many different contexts. For example, she brings up the example of the Palestinian and Israeli children dying, showing how for each the photo carries revenge along with the empathy of seeing one suffer. Photos like those can actually be used to motivate war and strife instead of limiting it.
In chapter six, Sontag describes the detachment that people can feel after being exposed to images of suffering. Sontag argues that after seeing a gruesome image, without action being taken we become desensitized to the violence. The more and more photos we see without taking action, the more and more normal seeing pain feels, and the more we are able to replicate that pain. Suffering can also be beautiful and entertaining: when we see a car crash on the side of the road, we are intrigued with what took place, and we can have one of three reactions. The first is to say: “how horrible,” and look away. The second is to stare at the crash; to become fascinated and entertained by what happened. The last is to see the crash and take action to help solve the pain. The problem is that there is not just one good outcome from seeing images of suffering, there can be ways in which the suffering produces negative consequences.
In chapter eight, Sontag discusses the value that images of suffering have. Although they can be used to perpetuate war or cause indifference, they also instill powerful human emotions into their observers. Emotionally reacting to a depiction of pain and trying to empathize with the person in pain is an ethical act. Looking at pictures of pain also makes us understand that humans commit atrocities towards each other, which Sontag thinks is a key understanding that marks psychological adulthood. People think there is something morally wrong at observing pain from such an abstract point of view, but in fact it is ethical to use depictions of pain to spark emotions of change and empathy within people.
Chapter 1: Photographic representations of suffering instill different emotions in observers based on the context of the image.
Chapter 6: Violence can be beautiful and entertaining rather than shocking, and people who feel safe from that violence and pain can become detached from those images.
Chapter 8: Although images of suffering can never encapsulate the actuality of what occurred, they are necessary to make us feel emotions and take action.