Published in 2003, just one year before her death, Regarding The Pain of Others was the final work of American cultural theorist and activist Susan Sontag. Seen as a follow up to her famous 1977 work On Photography, Regarding The Pain of Others is a book-length essay exploring the practice of war photography. Sontag examines the public perception of war through the lense of photography, taking into account different factors such as race, sex, class, and culture. Going as far back as the American Civil War, Sontag performs a genealogy of the photography of wars and atrocities, including: the First and Second World War, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, the Rwandan Genocide, the Spanish Civil War, the Bosnian Genocide and Yugoslav wars, the Vietnam War, and the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Sontag matches this with an analysis of how photographs and cameras themselves have been involved, and contrasts this relationship with the changing nature of war and public perception.

Sontag challenges the notion of an objectivity of photos; while it’s true that photos do capture exactly what is in front of the photographer, they will always be produced with a point of view—who is taking the photograph and in what context matters. There is always a very important context needed when looking at photography, especially photographs of war and atrocities. Sontag uses the example of the Yugoslav Wars, noting how brutal photos of corpses littering the ground were used as propaganda by all sides of the conflict. Even the sides responsible for the horrendous atrocities used the photographs for their own nefarious purposes. Photographs are not objective; instead, they are the result of the combination of the viewers’ previous individual experiences and biases, with the context in which the photo was taken (or lack thereof). 

Sontag acknowledges a seemingly “dual nature” of the photograph. On the one hand, while photographs of the horrendous atrocities of war can be seen as decrying the horrors of war, they can also be seen or used as a means of justifying said war. When looking at the Spanish Civil War, the intentional massacre of civilians by General Franco’s forces can be seen on one hand as an example of the horrors of war and why we should do everything in our power to prevent it, and on the other hand, as a justification for why we need to fight wars– to fight against the fascist menace. Sontag works with another example: how Israelis would gaze with horror upon photos of Israelis killed by Palestinian suicide bombers, using such photos as an excuse for brutal IDF war crimes. Palestinians will see the photographs of Palestinians brutally murdered by the IDF and use this as a justification for bombings. However, both sides seemingly ignore the photos of the horrendous deeds done to the other. This is why culture, ethnicity, and perspective are so important to photography. People tend to have more compassion for their own race or country. It is not that one photo is worse than the others, but the effects of the photography depend so much on just who you are looking at, and through what lens. 

But most importantly to Sontag, there is fundamentally a disconnect between the experience of horror and the person viewing the photograph. The person viewing the photograph can never truly understand the horror of what is depicted in the photo. Those who have not lived through such things cannot understand, cannot experience, cannot know what truly happened. We may recognize genocides or wars happening in other countries as horrible, but the experience will always be lacking, it will not feel fully real, it’s more like a movie to us. Sontag talks about this with the horrors of 9/11, in which survivors and people on the ground felt like they were watching a movie. More than that, we are desensitized. Seeing photograph after photograph of atrocity makes them seem somehow less atrocious .

“The person viewing the photograph can never truly understand the horror of what is depicted in the photo.”

Now, more than ever, I think Sontag’s work on photography is relevant. In the age of social media, images and videos of horrors and atrocities are everywhere on the internet. Circulating throughout social media, on YouTube or other video streaming services, or sites like Reddit and 4chan are pictures and videos of horrendous acts of violence and true suffering. Photos and videos of brutal police killings and police brutality spread on the internet like wildfire, and people can watch footage of actual warfare and combat or watch ISIS beheading videos.

In the summer of 2020, the world was shocked by the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police in Minneapolis. This started a summer of riots, protests, and activism, as well as the epidemic of  performative activism on social media. The murder of George Floyd and the riots that followed are in my opinion the perfect example of what Sontag talked about throughout Regarding The Pain of Others.

First, context matters. Conservatives over at Fox News would show videos of violent riots and burning buildings in an attempt to vilify the Black Lives Matter movement, but then leave out all the countless peaceful protests across the country. The same right-wingers would criticize the social justice activists for the violent riots, but then refuse to show the footage of cops committing legitimate war crimes, brutalizing reporters, and using violent force against peaceful crowds. Even when shown the same footage, the conservative and the liberal could come away with different views as the “objective” nature of the photograph or video is destroyed by the clouds of ideology.

Secondly, there will always be a disconnect between the viewer and the experiencer. The person viewing the horrendous violence of police killings will never experience the actual horror of it. The person viewing the footage of police using tear gas on peaceful protesters may be shocked by the excessive violence, but they will never understand that experience just from the video itself. Race, culture, class, and other identities  will also be once again a great factor in determining the experience one gains from these photographs and videos. A white person will never be able to understand the system of racism and violence in America as a POC would; a rich person would never understand the struggle of the lower and working classes. When one looks at photos of brutality and killings or people living in destitution because of economic crises, there exists this fundamental disconnect which affects the way the photos impact us.

The photos across social media will always have the dual nature that Sontag describes. The same way different sides of the Yugoslav war would use photographs to defend their own side, different political alignments within the United States do the same. People can look at videos of riots and burning buildings and decry the horror and violence, while others can praise the revolutionary action as standing up to the system itself. What some people view as horrendous actions, others view as justifiable, and they will use these interpretations to defend their positions. 

Another thing important to Sontag is our desire for carnage and suffering. Sontag refers to an almost sexual desire to see suffering. To Sontag, there is also something attractive to rather low quality, “gritty” photography. We do not like seeing touched up, polished, professional looking photographs of horrors; there is something about the low quality images that speak to us. This is something that Sontag distances from the fine arts, or writing; one needs to practice to be a good musician, and a good writer must have a strong command of language, but a photographer? Considering our strange desire for low quality, grainy, and gritty photographs, it does not seem to be the same situation as with other arts. Maybe there was something special about the low quality of the Rodney King footage; maybe when people record police brutality on their cell phones, when people capture the sounds of the Lebanon explosion with their phones, or when soldiers record GoPro footage, there is something just uniquely sublime about it, something that draws us in, that fills the seemingly sexual desire for grit. 

But what strikes me as most important is the desensitization of the crisis. Sontag recognized how photos desentize us to horror, but she never could have imagined the extent at which this would happen. Social media has created a normalisation of crisis and a simultaneous short term memory which desensitizes us to the true horror of these situations. Crisis after crisis is shared all over the internet; horrific stories, pictures, and videos are shared from police violence to war crimes, from killings to natural disasters. All these are all well-documented and circulated over social media, but this just creates a feeling of numbness. The year 2020 alone was filled with so many spectacles: the war in Armenia, the crisis in Yemen, the endSARS movement in Nigeria, the explosion in Lebanon, the COVID-19 Pandemic, and the 2020 US election. Social media hits us with an information overload; as Jean Baudrillard says in The Vital Illusion, “It is the excess of reality that puts an end to reality, just as the excess of information puts an end to information.” If there is such a sensory overload how are we to truly comprehend and care about anything?

“It is the excess of reality that puts an end to reality, just as the excess of information puts an end to information.” –Baudrillard, The Vital Illusion

This fundamental nature of the image and social media leads to what I believe is a crisis of performative action. It is easy to be overloaded to the point where people passively post images and trending infographics and call that a day with activism. When one cannot understand the true horror of the events happening to other people, it is easy to just post a colorful infographic and believe that one is doing enough. The disconnect between the affluent social media influencers or privileged white sorority girls and the people actually suffering is too great. Sontag holds that as long as  this privilege and disconnection exists, we must be able to acknowledge it. It is important for the left to understand this disconnection; while it is true we will never be able to fully overcome it, we must recognize the disconnect as well as  our biases when attempting to be real activists. Sontag acknowledges how the constant barrage  of horrendous images can leave us feeling powerless;  nonetheless, she still holds that this sense of hopelessness is very important, for it allows us to understand the horrors humanity is capable of.

By Ajay Chakraborty, Contributor