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Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag
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Regarding the Pain of Others

by Susan Sontag

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This long essay is basically an update of and debate with Sontag's famous book On Photography, which I, unfortunately, haven't read. Published in 2003, shortly before her death, it gives an overview of the history of war photography, from its beginnings, to today's embedded journalists and 24 hour news channels. She covers a lot of ground, but the focus is on the purpose of these images and the evolving effect they have had on viewers as they have become more and more ubiquitous throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Here are some of my favorite quotes (hopefully not taken so out of context that they're hard to decipher!):

I'm fascinated by the topic "fear/avoidance of sincerity/expressions of sincerity," so this really resonates with me:
"Citizens of modernity, consumers of violence as spectacle, adepts of proximity without risk, are schooled to be cynical about the possibility of sincerity. Some people will do anything to keep themselves from being moved. How much easier, from one's chair, far from danger, to claim the position of superiority. In fact, deriding the efforts of those who have borne witness in war zones as 'war tourism' is such a recurrent judgement that it has spilled over into the discussion of war photography as a profession."

Interesting point:
"The Holocaust Memorial Museum and the future Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial are about what didn't happen in America, so the memory-work doesn't risk arousing an embittered domestic population against authority. To have a museum chronicling the great crime that was African slavery in the United States of America would be to acknowledge that the evil was here. Americans prefer to picture all the evil that was there, and from which the United States - a unique nation, one without any certifiably wicked leaders throughout its entire history - is exempt. That this country, like every other country, has its tragic past does not sit well with the founding, and still all-powerful, belief in American exceptionalism."

Perhaps a bit harsh, but my favorite and a better summary of her main point than I can articulate on my own:
"To designate a hell is not, of course, to tell us anything about how to extract people from that hell, how to moderate hell's flames. Still it seems a good in itself to acknowledge, to have enlarged, one's sense of how much suffering caused by human wickedness there is in the world we share with others. Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological maturity." ( )
  DorsVenabili | Nov 17, 2014 |
Much in the way AIDS and its metaphors is an update of Illness as metaphor, likewise Regarding the pain of others (2004) is an update of On Photography (1977). Unfortunately, the follow-up books are not as original and well-written as the first-conceived editions. Perhaps avoiding a repetition of earlier ideas or arguments, the follow-up books, they are not as sparkling, a mere shadow of the original works.

The title of Regarding the pain of others is ambiguous, based on the possible double meaning of the word "regarding". The essay is therefore as much, but not solely about "pain", but much more about "viewing suffering," i.e. the pain of others.

The essay deals with various types of images, starting with Sixteenth century etchings by Goltzius, and moves on to discuss the graphic work of Hans Ulrich Frank of soldiers killing peasants, dated to 1652 or the end of the Thirty Years' War, and Francisco Goya's early Nineteenth century work, a series of 83 etchings under the title Los Desastres de la Guerra. However, Sontag's essay does not convincingly bear out that these etchings are works of art, and cannot be regarded as the equivalent of journalistic photography. The essay is largely concerned with journalistic and war photography and filmography.

Regarding the pain of others does touch upon the satisfaction derived from watching the suffering of others, or at least images thereof. But the work is far more focused on describing the medium of photography than exploring man's fascination with the images of suffering. This is regrettable, as the ambiguous title gave an outlook on a broad spectrum of interest, which in this essay is only interpreted in the narrow sense of photography. ( )
1 vote edwinbcn | Dec 27, 2013 |
There were times when Ms. Sontag made excellent points and had me thinking about things from a new point of view, and times when she seemed to write in circles and never really made a point. I liked the book, and I think it says things we need to hear, but even this short book had a lot of extra fluff that seemed to hide the ideas and thoughts that were most important. ( )
  ElOsoBlanco | Jul 15, 2013 |
An interesting and intelligent meditation on the role of photojournalism in depicting human suffering – focussing especially on the atrocities of war – and the public's reaction to such images. Regarding the Pain of Others presents an intriguing collection of thoughts on the subject marshalled with an extraordinary degree of finesse. This is undoubtedly an important essay in an age when the average citizen is becoming remarkably desensitised to what would once have been considered – not too long ago – quite shocking images. The question that remains, however, is 'what do we do about it?'.
  benjamin7857 | Dec 19, 2012 |
A very interesting long essay about how evil is made visual through photography. I liked this a lot, very thoghtful writing ( )
  michaelbartley | Jun 9, 2012 |
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...aux vaincus!  --Baudelaire
The dirty nurse.  Experience...--Tennyson
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for David
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In June 1938 Virginia Woolf published Three Guineas, her brave, unwelcomed reflections on the roots of war.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312422199, Paperback)

Twenty-five years after her classic On Photography, Susan Sontag returns to the subject of visual representations of war and violence in our culture today.

How does the spectacle of the sufferings of others (via television or newsprint) affect us? Are viewers inured--or incited--to violence by the depiction of cruelty? In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag takes a fresh look at the representation of atrocity--from Goya's The Disasters of War to photographs of the American Civil War, lynchings of blacks in the South, and the Nazi death camps, to contemporary horrific images of Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Israel and Palestine, and New York City on September 11, 2001.

In Regarding the Pain of Others Susan Sontag once again changes the way we think about the uses and meanings of images in our world, and offers an important reflection about how war itself is waged (and understood) in our time.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:46:49 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

"One of the distinguishing features of modern life is that it supplies countless opportunities for regarding (at a distance, through the medium of photography) horrors taking place throughout the world. Images of atrocities have become, via the little screens of the television and the computer, something of a commonplace. But are viewers inured - or incited - to violence by the depiction of cruelty? Is the viewer's perception of reality eroded by the daily barrage of such images? What does it mean to care about the sufferings of people in faraway zones of conflict?" "Susan Sontag's now classic book On Photography defined the terms of this debate twenty-five years ago. Her new book is a profound rethinking of the intersection of "news," art, and understanding in the contemporary depiction of war and disaster. She makes a fresh appraisal of the arguments about how pictures can inspire dissent, foster violence, or create apathy, evoking a long history of the representation of the pain of others - from Goya's The Disasters of War to photographic documents of the American Civil War, lynchings of blacks in the South, the First World War, the Spanish Civil War, the Nazi death camps, and contemporary images from Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Israel and Palestine, and New York City on September 11, 2001." "This is also a book about how war itself is waged (and understood) in our time, replete with vivid historical examples and a variety of arguments advanced from some unexpected literary sources. Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, Edmund Burke, Wordsworth, Baudelaire, and Virginia Woolf all figure in this passionate reflection on the modern understanding of violence and atrocity. It includes as well a stinging attack on the provincialism of media pundits who denigrate the reality of war, and a political understanding of conflict, with glib talk about a new, worldwide "society of spectacle." Just as On Photography challenged how we understand the very condition of being modern, Regarding the Pain of Others will alter our thinking not only about the uses and meanings of images, but about the nature of war, the limits of sympathy, and the obligations of conscience."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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