Sontag begins her book evaluating Virginia Woolf’s response to a London lawyer who questions the reasons behind war and how we can prevent armed conflict. Woolf points to the difference between men and women, that men start, participate in, and are excited about the idea of war while women (generally) do not enjoy it. Woolf uses photos to be able to have a dialogue with the lawyer about war and the results. Photos from war are generally pretty similar and without captions, it is hard to know what war is depicted in the photo. Some people claim that photos of war are staged, almost propaganda-like. Sontag also brings up the question of what photos are we not being shown, what is missing?
Photos are very powerful and can convey messages, but they can be interpreted differently on a person to person basis and images are deliberate.
There is a human need to see gruesome things and to take in pain and mutilation of others. Sontag compares this need as just as natural as sympathy. Images of troubling things play different roles depending on the person, a strengthening, an awakening, a sense of numbness. It is hard to be affected by things that are not happening to you, even when they are close. “Wherever people feel safe… they will feel indifferent.” (100) Conflict is normal in this day and age and as long as we are sympathetic, we do not feel as though we play a part in the suffering of others.
Humans like to take in the painful experiences of others and justify themselves as bystanders as long as they feel some sympathy towards the victims.
Memory plays an important role in our relation to the dead, as soon as we make peace, the dead our forgotten. Today, we are bombarded with horrific stories on the news, but this does not affect our ability to think about people far away who are suffering. Our complacency and ability to not do anything about foreign situations is why we see the photos from those places as so powerful. But even close by, looking at photos is still just watching. There is nothing wrong with experiencing the pain of others from a distance, it is thought-provoking.
We need to consciously remember atrocities of the past in order to not forget and photos help us do this, especially for things that happen in a very different place than where we live.