Reading the works of Sontag and Gourevitch together accentuates a powerful connection, as both texts provide a commentary on how “we” collectively, the fortunate individuals who cannot relate to the terrors experienced by the victims of violent atrocities, implicitly react to depictions of violence from a distance. This is a touchy subject that is easily ignored due to the fact that it reveals the vast disconnect between the living and the dead in addition to some dark aspects of human nature. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag explores the powerful impact of photography, as a camera is the only thing that can “catch a death actually happening and embalm it for all time” (Sontag 59). Despite our greatest efforts, it is impossible to imagine ourselves in the positions of the people in photographs “who know they are condemned to die” (Sontag 60). All we can do to alleviate the troubling feeling of viewing horrors outside the realm of our imagination is to sympathize and imprudently ask the rhetorical question, “How could humans do this to one another?” Gourevitch’s work forces the reader to grapple with the answer to this repeatedly asked question. He examines the perspective of the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, compelling the reader to consider the power of propaganda in dehumanizing the enemy in addition to the powerful nature of fear in breeding conformity. These factors help reveal the troubling fact that all human beings are capable of being convinced to commit violent atrocities given the right circumstances.
In our interconnected modern society, the increased availability of violent images through various forms of media has contributed to a rise in desensitization. Our daily exposure to such images has clouded our perceptions of reality, thus expanding the divide between “our” existence and the existence of the victims of violence. If exposure to violent images only amplifies our lack of understanding and imagination, then what is the purpose of studying violent images? And why are we perpetually drawn to horrifying images depicting the violent ramifications of war? Sontag states that “we can’t truly imagine what it [war] was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes” to those who live it (Sontag 126). The importance of studying violent images lies not in understanding the experience of those in the photograph, but in uncovering what these photographs reveal about ourselves. Gourevitch and Sontag presented an external depiction of violence in the hopes of forcing the reader to dig deep into their inner conscience and morality. Violent photographs serve as a mirror, and through that mirror we may uncover inner truths that have the potential to end the perpetual cycle of violence.