In Chapter 1 of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, she begins by recounting Virigina Woolfe’s assertion that war is perpetrated by men. Although she moves on from this point, Sontag uses this example to draw focus to whose perspective we are speaking about in talks of war, especially in the viewing of photos. She questions Woolfe’s notion that photos capturing the destruction of war are concrete evidence for the denouncement of war. By changing one’s perspective, Sontag argues that parties on either side of war find justification for their actions of violence. In viewing what Sontag calls “generic” images, the same photo can be used by both sides of the war, giving the caption power over the image. Individuals can justify these actions of violence because, for the most part, we are taught to believe that violence can serve a cause.
Photographs of war cannot always speak for themselves, as violence is often committed in society, the feelings we derive from such images vary based on which perspective we take.
Within this chapter, Sontag claims that photographs which display casualties and harm to the body hold a sexual nature. The physical attraction, or desire to gaze, forms an inner struggle. We feel strongly urged to observe atrocity, yet we are repulsed by the very thought of such an occurrence. Some facet of our consciousness fights against our own nature. This may in part be due to a “love of cruelty” as Sontag puts it. Humans derive pleasure from witnessing pain done onto others. Sontag clarifies that this pleasure does not come from the actual suffering, but our own desire to escape weakness. Additionally, when humans living with relative privilege engage with violence at a distance, through photos, there is a sense of indifference. This is created as violent images circulate all of the time and feelings of helplessness overcome our compassion. Yet, Sontag points out that sympathy is entirely the wrong response to have from the outset as it prevents us from recognizing our indifference and role in the turmoil found elsewhere in the world.
It is our nature to find a subconscious pleasure in the pain of others, but we shouldn’t allow ourselves to become complacent; instead we must aim to feel discomfort to prompt a reflection of our own role in others’ struggles.
Sontag claims that when others are shocked at others’ capacity for evil, they are exhibiting naivety. When viewing images of horror, we should instead embrace the evil to stay vigilant for our own capacity to hurt others. Finding discomfort in photography prevents us from reconciling our pain, instead we must retain the trauma and remember what we see. Sontag mentions that some people may look down upon photos for putting distance between the act and the viewer. However, Sontag rebuttes that viewing an atrocity up close provides the same distance and chance to look away as that of a photograph. Sontag finds solace in the fact that distance from an act, through photographs or live observation, provides the opportunity for reflection.
While some may criticize photography for placing distance between viewers and violence, Sontag instead believes that a similar distance occurs in the regular viewing of violence, a distance that is needed to realize the potential for evil that lies in all of us.