Humanitarian Art

Jeremy Harding

  • Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag
    Hamish Hamilton, 117 pp, £12.99, August 2003, ISBN 0 241 14207 5
  • Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics by David Levi Strauss
    Aperture, 224 pp, £20.00, May 2003, ISBN 1 931788 10 3

Photographs, for Susan Sontag, are accessories to the act of remembering. Regarding the Pain of Others is as much about what we do and don’t remember as it is about representations of suffering – photographs of war and disaster, for the most part – and their value. The archives of ordinary individuals are stacked with visual index cards that trigger a range of private associations. There’s also a public archive, a shared compendium of familiar images, which Sontag cannot bring herself to call ‘collective memory’. ‘Strictly speaking,’ she writes, ‘there is no such thing as collective memory – part of the same family of spurious notions as collective guilt.’ But she does believe in the existence of ideology, with its entourage of ‘poster-ready’ images, ‘the visual equivalent of sound bites’, all of them, it turns out, American or US-patented: ‘the mushroom cloud of an A-bomb test, Martin Luther King Jr speaking at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, the astronaut walking on the moon’. ‘What is called collective memory,’ she argues, ‘is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important … with the pictures that lock the story in our minds.’

The depiction of other people’s undoing, usually by violence, is part of this ideology, a component of ‘what a society chooses to think about’, yet Sontag believes it might transcend stipulation and generate a proper moral reflection on the nature of ‘war and other infamies’; or, better still, a desire to speak out, to act, to change the real circumstances that confront us, at a remove, through the mediation of the image. The double entendre of ‘regarding’ in her title is joined by a third, fainter association, that of self-regard, which alerts us to the possibility that societies, no less than individuals, may be flattered by their own lofty sense of purpose when confronted by human misery. ‘The national consensus on American history as a history of progress,’ Sontag writes, ‘is a new setting for distressing photographs – one that focuses our attention on wrongs, both here and elsewhere, for which America sees itself as the solution or cure.’ In spite of these anxieties, she sees more good than harm in ‘regarding the pain of others’.

Her argument is persuasive because she makes no remedial claim for photography. ‘To designate a hell is not . . . to tell us anything about how to extract people from that hell . . . 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.’ To look at a photograph is to pay attention. And attention, however compromised, is better than indifference or ignorance:

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 adulthood . . . No one after a certain age has the right to this kind of innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of ignorance, or amnesia.

These remarks reappear, almost unchanged, in Sontag’s prefatory essay to a new collection of photographs by the veteran war photographer Don McCullin.[*] And she adds: ‘Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens and cannot possibly encompass all the reality of a people’s agony, they still perform an immensely positive function. The image says: keep these events in your memory.’ Wise readers will not trust the formula ‘a people’s agony’ any more than they would ‘a people’s triumph’; the first has too often been a prelude to the second and both should be put out to graze. Even so, Sontag is vouching for something here: memory for better or worse, and images of other people’s misery as aides mémoire.

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[*] Don McCullin (Cape, 296 pp., £17.50, August, 0 224 07118 1).