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.

But as she knows – she says as much – memory does not always play host to the right kinds of attention. ‘To make peace is to forget,’ she concedes. ‘To reconcile, it is necessary that memory be faulty and limited.’ When one’s own terror and injury have been memorised as folktale, it becomes all the more easy to mete out injustice to others, as the Serbs did to non-Serbs in Bosnia, as the Afrikaners did to black South Africans, and as the state of Israel does to the Palestinians. The key to the folktale is that it belongs only to the folk: their suffering cannot be universalised, for that would do away with extenuations. Or to put it the other way round, as Sontag does in Regarding the Pain of Others: ‘If the goal is having some space in which to live one’s own life, then it is desirable that the account of specific injustices dissolve into a more general understanding that human beings everywhere do terrible things to one another.’

Is this really an advance on the violence done in the name of a special entitlement – an ethnic ‘Serbian’ prerogative, or a historical ‘Jewish’ prerogative – to behave badly? For if terrible things are going on ‘everywhere’, and we are surrounded by imagery of atrocity and degradation, it scarcely matters what kind of folktale a person committing a crime against humanity or breaching a rule of war has at the back of his mind, even if it’s a fair guess that every bully has a true story to tell about how badly he and his kind have been treated. Dozens of photographs of cities under siege, internment camps, feeding centres and field hospitals are likely to reinforce our feeling that these stories don’t matter. By generalising away from the causes of a conflict towards the universal lineaments of human anguish – the statuary of war, dead or alive, anywhere – the images Sontag urges us to look at will often persuade us that this meaning lies beyond politics.

To universalise is both desirable and dangerous, then. Desirable because it is a way of unpacking atrocities committed in the name of this and that, in order to insist that they are first and foremost atrocities. Dangerous because it disguises or obfuscates problems of power: the universalising principle, eroded by the Cold War and battered by the rise of identity politics, made a cautious comeback in the 1990s, only to find that it was now the pageboy to a new pretender, ‘humanitarianism’, most obviously in the former Yugoslavia.

In the world at large, and especially in Europe, the debate about whether or not to put a stop to the wars in Yugoslavia was couched in terms of what was or was not the correct ‘humanitarian’ response. But from 1992 until the end of the Nato air campaign, the differences between those who favoured military intervention – in other words, war – and those who didn’t were above all political: one group’s politics could accommodate the high levels of atrocity in Yugoslavia without much difficulty, the other group’s could not. Both camps, however, dressed their politics up as ‘humanitarianism’: Major and Mitterrand took the humanitarian road to complicity, with food convoys and an embargo on arms to the Bosnian Government; Clinton and Blair led a humanitarian bombing campaign. As the term sank into disrepute one could hear the creakings and frettings in the new tentative at universalism.

Regarding the Pain of Others has things to say about the Balkan wars, and about photographs taken in Bosnia, where Sontag made an admirable internationalist stand during the war. But the tensions that intrigue her are present throughout the book and corrugate her argument from start to finish. Early on, she takes up Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas to open a discussion about the general and the specific, and what an image of war might mean to anyone at all. The photograph in question, part of a batch put out by the Spanish Republic, shows the aftermath of a Fascist bombardment. Woolf is engrossed in a universalising sense of the horror: ‘War is an abomination; a barbarity; war must be stopped.’ But Sontag wants to unsettle Woolf’s attitude. If photographs of devastation from Spain ‘could only stimulate the repudiation of war’ in the mind of one observer, in another ‘surely they could foster greater militancy on behalf of the Republic.’

It’s a crux point in the book, which goes on to show that these contradictions can never be fully resolved without the ‘horror’ of war becoming a question of what side you’re on, or, as Sontag puts it:

To an Israeli Jew, a photograph of a child torn apart in the attack on the Sbarro pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem is first of all a photograph of a Jewish child killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber. To a Palestinian, a photograph of a child torn apart by a tank round in Gaza is first of all a photograph of a Palestinian child killed by Israeli ordnance.

And elsewhere: ‘All photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions.’

Then there are the politics of sentiment. Why is the dread or pity we’re supposed to feel in the face of other people’s suffering (and maybe sometimes we do) so often undercut by a need to turn away? We can never quite tell whether our sense of intruding on something too intimate is a denial of the fact that it is intruding on us; nor whether an image that seems to overwhelm us is an image we’re at pains to overwhelm. Sontag does not think that any of this can outweigh the importance of documentary record. The photograph itself is neutral, neither for nor against any political position; a statement of witness, about what people do to each other. Its meaning is not determined by the photographer’s intentions. It will have ‘its own career, blown by the whims and loyalties of the diverse communities that have a use for it’, but as it falls into different political camps, it can be hostage to different kinds of sentiment on the part of the viewer, including anger. ‘The frustration of not being able to do anything about what the images show may be translated into an accusation of the indecency of regarding such images,’ but this in Sontag’s view is to charge the photographs with crimes they have not committed.

One way to test her passionate defence of frightful documentary photographs is to take the argument away from the grandeurs of war and devastation and ask yourself whether you could imagine photographs of people dying in an NHS hospital appearing in publicity for private health insurance. Or one day, who knows, vice versa. Another would be to ask whether we should be shown the photographic evidence of child abuse in order to convince us of what is wrong with it. For if photographs are counters, as Sontag has it, they are of service to any trader of notions for as long as we have confidence in the currency. To which it could be said that we know the proper use of a shocking photograph when we see it. But if so, we’ve already discerned the purpose and have no need of its illustration.

Another way, a fairer one, would be to ask how you would feel if, as of tomorrow, you were spared the sight of other people’s indignity, in stills or footage, for the duration. How you answered would depend, perhaps, on the way you fantasised your exemption coming into effect. In the UK rather more than the US, one could conceive of the press going into full celebrity-and-lifestyle mode, to the exclusion of the images Sontag champions, or – less plausibly in either place – that by a miraculous eventuality of public taste, the only recorded evidence of suffering took the form of the spoken and written word.

It might have been a more ‘humane’ and a more politicised culture that read and heard about the Biafran War without seeing the images of emaciation. It might have been a more stoical United States that had not had to see the attacks on the Twin Towers become wave upon wave of attack, day after day, over and over, the sequences so familiar that they took on the character of stills. (Sontag writes well about Here Is New York, an exhibition of photographs by amateurs and professionals recording the attacks, which opened in SoHo at the end of September 2001.) Yet documentary imagery can challenge official versions of events more directly than the word, especially in war, where language may be in need of reinforcements: it might not be enough, for instance, for journalists simply to state that they have seen the victims of ‘surgical’ weapons strikes, or starving civilians in a shiny post-Independence state. Thirty-five years ago, McCullin’s pictures of Biafra put Harold Wilson’s support for the Nigerian Government under strong public pressure.

If, on the other hand, unpleasant or shocking images were simply killed off by lifestyle journalism, celebrity and sport, might we not begin to feel the absence of the thing that allows us to move from one set of thoughts to another in the way Sontag says that we can and must? ‘We actually understand very little,’ she concludes her essay on Don McCullin,

by just looking at the photographic witness of some heartbreaking arena of indignity, pain and death . . . There are questions to be asked. Who caused what the picture shows? Who is responsible? Is it excusable? Was it inevitable? Is there some state of affairs which we’ve accepted up to now that ought to be challenged? A photograph can’t coerce. It won’t do the moral work for us. But it can start us on the way.

Much has been said about what photography can’t do. Sontag’s remarks about McCullin echo her earlier essays and loop back to Ursula’s remark at the end of her short story ‘The Way We Live Now’: ‘The difference between a story and a painting or a photograph is that in a story you can write: He’s still alive. But in a painting or a photo you can’t show “still”.’ David Levi Strauss believes that ‘photographs by themselves certainly cannot tell “the whole truth”.’ But he knows what they can do, and he is always looking for the photograph that can show ‘still’. Where these congenial, talkative essays strike away from Sontag’s is in the notion that photographs can get the viewer started on all kinds of work – visual, intellectual and intuitive – and that a lot of it is richer than the term ‘moral’ can encompass, at least in first draft. But photographs have a way of dragging what is said of them into the moral register, especially when it comes to politics.

At least two of Strauss’s essays, on landmine injuries and street children, abandon the subject of photography altogether. This is obscurely shocking, but it makes the point that a politics of representation needs grounding in the real. Elsewhere, though, he’s far readier than Sontag to explore the mannerisms of news culture, information excess and the slippage of meaning. Sontag wants to hack her way through this stuff and gets very short with theoreticians: she doesn’t like Baudrillard and she’s unfair on Debord. Strauss is more patient. He is confident, too, that aesthetic considerations in the work of a documentary photographer do not produce an anaesthetic effect on the viewer by keeping raw feeling at a remove. He admires Sebastião Salgado’s old-fashioned project, conceived in the manner of a world survey, about labour, human movement and political economy, in part because of its consciously dramatic quality. Sontag, by contrast, sees it as a bit too grand, too heady – and it makes her think of The Family of Man.

Invention, in any case, makes good the documentary deficit. Having explained that no photograph of war can be ‘anti-war’, Sontag ends her book in praise of an ‘exemplary’ anti-war art image. Dead Troops Talk is a huge transparency produced by the Canadian artist Jeff Wall. It is subtitled ‘A Vision after an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986’. Wall built a set of a hillside crater in his studio and filled it with a dark resurrection scene in which the dead and dismembered sit around, looking dazed but not displeased, as though each had just burrowed up through his own extinction to greet his comrades in the limbo that was a hell-on-earth moments earlier when they were killed. ‘These dead are supremely uninterested . . . in witnesses – and in us,’ Sontag writes. ‘Why should they seek our gaze? What would they have to say to us?’ She means that we who know little of war can only disappoint or dishonour those who are caught up in it, unless we keep trying to imagine it. It is nonetheless a fact that if they do not nurse ambitions for power, people who come out of a war, scathed or unscathed, usually try to put it behind them. Apparently, Sontag thinks we should do the remembering, and the imagining, in their stead.

Strauss is doubtful whether the imagination can work fully on unmitigated documentary evidence of atrocity and grief. One of his most intriguing essays is about the Chilean photographer Alfredo Jaar, who went to Rwanda in August 1994, a few months after the genocide. He shot hundreds of rolls of film. In January 1995, he selected 60 processed photographs, showing ruined townships, massacre sites and refugee camps on the Zaire border, and placed them in black linen boxes, which he then assembled in monumental stacks and exhibited in Chicago as a ‘cemetery of images’. Lengthy descriptions of the ‘buried’ photographs, including dates, precise locations and the ages of the protagonists, were printed on each of the boxes. The epigraph to Real Pictures – the title of the exhibition – is taken from the Catalan poet Vicenç Altaió: ‘Images have an advanced religion; they bury history.’ In Real Pictures, Strauss comments, ‘the tables are turned – images are buried in order that history might again be made visible and legible.’ That is too simple for a project of such self-consciousness, teetering on the brink of a fatuous new genre: the genocide art concept. And how ingenious of Jaar to make a meal of not showing what he shot in Rwanda – to fail to come clean and add to the archive, straightforwardly, like anyone else who set their stone on that dismal cairn. One imagines a survivor seething with anger at the exhibit, demanding that it show what has to be shown: the mass graves, whatever else. But to think of that person at all is to take the step that Real Pictures would have asked of its audience. The absence of imagery is not always a drawback to the ‘moral work’ that advocates of documentary horror have in mind for us.

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