In chapter 1, we are introduced to the dialogue of Virginia Woolf and a lawyer who are discussing the question of “How in your (Woolf) opinion are we to prevent war”? Woolf uses this as an opportunity to discuss how men play a key role in a war. She believes that men glorify and find a certain satisfaction in war more so than women. Woolf then shifts the conversation to how photographs can be used to prevent war, but also how they can be used to perpetuate war. When shown a photograph of the destruction and death caused by war, the conclusion of all moral humans is usually along the lines of “We need to end war”. However, when the destruction of war is shown alongside a caption that identifies the victims, the photographs can inspire war. A photograph of mutilated Palestinians shown to Palestinians can be used to motivate and inspire war in the name of justice.
Photographs have a unique ability to motivate people to stop a war or continue a war.
We look at the philosophies of Freud, Plato, and others in order to explore the human interest and reaction to that which is morbid. Some interest can be linked to a kind of repressed sexual response, but Sontag decides to explore morbid images that don’t have any sexual connotation. She parallels Plato’s trichotomy of the brain with Freud’s theory of Id, Ego, and Superego. They both explain how humans have a moral calling to not look at morbid images, however, we have a naturalistic desire to look. When witness to a car crash, a lot of humans slow down secretly wanting to see something shocking. This disconnect between our morals and desires can create a kind of frustration. She then explores how this reaction can apply to photos. Photos play to our sympathy because we are looking at a once-living being like us, creating a personal connection. However, this sympathy will quickly wilt in a drought of hopelessness and fear if it is not tended to with a clear plan for action.
Sympathy will only continue to grow if action is taken, otherwise, it turns into indifference.
Sontag asks us to differentiate between memory and remembering. She says we are morally responsible for being conscious of the atrocities that humankind is capable of. However a memory of something is static, but remembering something is a verb. It requires thinking about and reflecting on. It is our duty not to let memories of past events fade, but to actively remember them. She then outlines the ways in which photographs alienate us from atrocities, because we are able to sit back and selectively look at them. We don’t have to smell them, hear them, taste them, or feel them. However, this isn’t necessarily bad. She ends with the notion that one can’t think while also throwing a punch. If don’t have to throw a punch, it is our duty to remember.
We must actively remember the atrocities that humans are capable of.