In her new book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag’s focus is upon theaters of war and the way in which photographers have interpreted their role in the production of images of war, their moral responsibilities as spectators whose profession is to provide such images for the millions who stay at home, watch television, read the newspapers, leaf through magazines or frequent galleries and museums. She is particularly angered by those who see the spectacle of war and disaster as if it were a form of entertainment. “Ever since cameras were invented in 1839, photography has kept company with death.” This dictum stopped me in my tracks when I first read it. But Sontag is right to associate the camera so closely with death, to note that “once the camera was emancipated from the tripod, truly portable, and equipped with a range finder and a variety of lenses that permitted unprecedented feats of close observation from a distant vantage point, picture-taking acquired an immediacy and authority greater than any verbal account in conveying the horror of mass-produced death.”

Sontag unexpectedly begins her book with a chapter on Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, first published shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. Woolf was particularly concerned with this issue because her beloved nephew, Julian Bell, had left England to join the antifascist forces in Spain, where he was killed driving an ambulance. “The next war” (as she thought of titling Three Guineas) seemed already to have embarked on its prologue. She asks, “Is it not possible that if we knew the truth about war, the glory of war would be scotched and crushed where it lies curled up in the rotten cabbage leaves of our prostituted fact-purveyors?” Woolf not only received packets of photographs from Spain, propaganda images for the Republican side, but also noted that “there is a very clear connection between culture and intellectual liberty and those photographs of dead bodies and ruined houses.” She also included a series of photographs within the text of Three Guineas, featuring an army general, a herald with trumpeters, a procession of university professors, a bewigged judge with buckled shoes and finally an archbishop in a surplice. In Spain, war meant the deadly struggle against fascism. In England it meant a parade of ceremonial masculinity.

Sontag also points to early examples of war photography, such as Roger Fenton’s images of the Crimean battlefield through which the Light Brigade galloped to the slaughter through the thunder of the guns, after “someone had blunder’d,” as Tennyson put it in his elegy for the fallen. Fenton, she notes, sanitized the charge of the Light Brigade, preferring to show the disasters of war as “a dignified all-male group outing,” in the tradition ironically proposed by Virginia Woolf, rather than a scene of carnage, as in Goya’s disturbing images of war in Spain. Sontag herself includes no images in her book, preferring to deal in words, which appeal to the understanding rather than the appetite, to the mind rather than the eye. Verbal narratives, she points out, can make us understand, while “photographs do something else: they haunt us.” We might well ask, as the critic Peter Conrad has done, whether sentiment is indeed more likely to crystallize around a photographic image than a verbal description, but surely a caption has the ability to place an image clearly within a narrative, whereas an unadorned image is open to any kind of specious interpretation.

It is in relation to this very issue that Sontag discusses a photograph taken by Ron Haviv during the war in Bosnia. She describes it in some detail and then concludes by noting that “in fact, the photograph tells us very little–except that war is hell, and that graceful young men with guns are capable of kicking overweight older women lying helpless, or already killed, in the head.” On the other hand, Sontag never fully rules out the possibility that such a photograph, like Ron Haberle’s photograph of the massacre of civilians at My Lai during the Vietnam War, might bolster opposition to war. In this context, Juan Goytisolo, who, like Sontag, went to Sarajevo during the war in Bosnia, asks the obvious question: Might people actually go to Bosnia hoping “to take photos of women and children packed into deportation trucks after a punctilious cleansing operation, who died from dehydration in Prijedor, like the Jews of Treblinka?” On the other hand, Goytisolo also notes that “photographers dispatched to Sarajevo and the war fronts have generally ‘covered’ the new with exemplary honesty and courage.” Attitudes to photography, it seems, are doomed to imply a certain level of ambivalence.

In 1972 John Berger wrote an essay titled “Photographs of Agony” in which he discussed the case for and against photographic coverage of the horrors of war in Vietnam. Specifically he was interested in the many photographs taken by Don McCullin (published in newspapers and later collected in McCullin’s book The Destruction Business). Berger noted that, while the press had long resisted the publication of war photographs that were considered to be shocking, it had now decided that they were acceptable. Berger suggests that there were two possible reasons for this change of attitude. First, certain newspapers had realized “that a large section of their readers are now aware of the horrors of war and want to be shown the truth,” or, alternatively, they believed that “readers have become inured to violent images” and that the press must now compete in terms of “ever more violent sensationalism.” Berger himself proposed that photographs of this type could provoke two contrasting attitudes. We are either filled with despair and indignation or engulfed by the suffering of others. Despair takes on the reality of the other’s suffering, but to no purpose. “Indignation demands action” and yet, in this context, there is apparently no adequate action that would be viable or even available.

We have to accept, Berger concluded, that our response to such a photograph, as it “isolates a moment of agony,” is bound to be felt as inadequate. Photographs of extreme agony, such as those taken by Don McCullin, demand our concern–and yet our response is likely to be one of feeling our “personal moral inadequacy,” being overwhelmed by our sense that there is nothing plausible that we can do. In such a depressing situation, Berger suggests, we can simply shrug off our own sense of inadequacy as “only too familiar,” or we might think of “performing a kind of penance”–perhaps with a contribution to a charity or an NGO. Berger, however, insists that since “the wars which we are shown are being fought directly or indirectly in ‘our’ name,” they should require our urgently political response. Yet, in reality, such photographs are far more likely to have a depoliticizing effect, simply creating a sense of despair and helplessness. As Berger concludes: “That is why they can be published with impunity.” Or, as Sontag puts it in Regarding the Pain of Others, “It’s about how can we, and to what extent do we, take in the suffering of others? Do we take in anything?”

The specific context for this uncertainty is, of course, that of the Iraq war, which has generated its own seemingly endless supply of images, many triumphalist, others disturbing and even grotesque, some heart-rending. It is the photographs with “heart-rending subject matter” that Sontag sees as out of place when exhibited in an art gallery or a museum, through which viewers typically stroll without any real commitment to the images that are on the walls. She would prefer that they be published in a book, which traditionally demands more attention, and is more likely to provoke serious concern. As I wrote the previous sentence, I decided to get up and walk across the room to take down The Lives of Lee Miller from the bookshelf and then turn to the chapter titled “Lee’s War”–a chapter that includes photographs of emergency surgery in a field hospital, bombs bursting on a fortress in France, Moroccan troops trudging through the snow toward the front, American infantry and tank crew billeting in a farmyard in Alsace, as well as the image of a dead German soldier for whom Lee Miller wrote her own caption: “This is a good German, he is dead. Artery forceps hang from his shattered wrists.” On the facing page, there is a photograph of the daughter of the burgomaster of Leipzig, who killed herself as the Allies took the town.

Other images, the most gruesome, show scenes from the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. Miller’s caption reads: “Some of the troops, unable to comprehend the enormity of the suffering, thought the camp a grim propaganda stunt faked by their own side.” It was this caption that convinced me that Sontag was right to insist on the primacy of the caption for understanding the circumstances and meanings of an image, in this case the horror experienced by the Allied troops and their inability to comprehend what they were seeing, whereas for the reader of Miller’s book, all the images were not only placed but also dated, giving them a status as documents as well as an emotional effect as images. Even more disturbing is the photograph that Miller took in 1946, showing the former prime minister of Hungary, a notorious fascist, as he faced the firing squad. Amazingly, this image was published in Vogue. A crowd of onlookers is crammed in. A priest is in attendance. An upright stance. Four bullets. Without a text the image’s status would be unclear, the emotional effect very different.

It is unfortunate that there has never, to my knowledge, been a collection of photographs from both sides of a war, comparable to the collection of paintings and other artworks published in As Seen by Both Sides: American and Vietnamese Artists Look at the War, a volume that, in fact, contains just five photographs, all of which, regrettably, were taken by Americans. One, taken by an amputee, shows a gun juxtaposed with artificial limbs that, out of context, seem to resemble weapons. Two others, taken by a photographer working for Life magazine, show two GIs, each of whom suffered from toxic chemical exposure, specifically Agent Orange. The other two images were the work of a GI, who was court-martialed, demoted and finally discharged. They show Ho Chi Minh’s tomb in Hanoi, juxtaposed with a photograph of the American Embassy in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. There is also a painting, the work of Tin Ly, who later immigrated to the United States, where he made a series of paintings on the war. One of these is based on Eddie Adams’s notorious photograph of General Loan holding his gun to a Vietcong prisoner’s head immediately before his summary execution.

Photography does seem to have become a kind of parasite on the body of war, whose credentials depend on its ability to deliver reality, to create images that reveal unquestionable truths. Yet these truths escape any normal principles of verification. The development of digital technology has made image alteration a very simple matter, even though images were being altered years before the new technology arrived. In 1993 a book titled Unknown Artist was published in Germany. It contains a number of photographs into which a stranger has been interpolated. In one photograph he appears as a member of the Surrealist group, looking at the camera over André Breton’s shoulder. In another he stands next to Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, founder of Italian Futurism. In Alain Jaubert’s book Making People Disappear, we are shown photographs from the USSR from which Trotsky and many others have indeed been removed. Similar vanishings and deceptions occur in photographs of Hitler with his close associates. No fewer than ten comrades vanished from Edgar Snow’s photograph of Mao Tse-tung with a group of friends and associates, leaving just three. One of the disappeared was Zhou En-lai’s wife. Long before Photoshop and the new digital technology, photography, it seems, was far from a reliable medium.

The great merit of Sontag’s book is that it questions the assumption that photographs tell the truth, as David Levi Strauss also does in his. Levi Strauss begins his book with a chapter-length discussion of the relation between aesthetics and politics in the field of photography. Essentially, he puts forward the proposition that there is no essential difference between photograph as document and photograph as artwork. Indeed, it is both possible and desirable for a photograph to have a political as well as an aesthetic dimension. In this context, he cites Walter Benjamin as believing that the way something is made (in this instance, a photograph) is as significant as its conventionally political aspect, its overt or covert message, so to speak. At the same time, Levi Strauss also endorses Benjamin’s critique of “the way certain modish photographers proceed in order to make human misery an object of consumption.” Levi Strauss is careful to distinguish between Benjamin’s reference to “certain modish photographers” and his insistence, in contrast to Sontag, that photographs can be visually or conceptually compelling in themselves, arguing that photographic images can indeed be honest witnesses and persuasive rhetoricians, carrying a political message. The viewer’s response should be characterized by complexity in its recognition of message and style and the intricate ways in which each interacts with the other.

The key figure in this ongoing debate over the nature of photography is the Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. Levi Strauss sets out the case for the defense, citing Ingrid Sischy’s New Yorker essay on Salgado (“Good Intentions”) in which she protests, as Sontag might, that “Salgado is too busy with the compositional aspects of his pictures–and with finding ‘grace’ and ‘beauty’ in the twisted forms of his anguished subjects. And this beautification of tragedy results in pictures that ultimately reinforce our passivity toward the experience they reveal. To aestheticize tragedy is the fastest way to anesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not to action.” Levi Strauss responds by arguing that it is “the disturbing quality of Salgado’s work that so divides viewers,” implying that it is wrong to accuse Salgado of aestheticizing his subjects–“the wretched of the earth,” to borrow Frantz Fanon’s phrase–and reject Salgado’s work as exploitative de haut en bas. He insists that, as Salgado himself claims, the work pays a “kind of homage to the working class and the old ways of producing that are disappearing.”

For Levi Strauss, Salgado’s project is one of documenting the melancholy demise of the industrial proletariat and peasantry, already expelled from the technologically advanced countries of the world, yet still struggling to exist, undergoing exploitation and misery in the mines of India or Bolivia, refugee camps of Sudan or Laos, shipyards of Bangladesh, factories of Ukraine, battlefields of Angola, the cemeteries of Ethiopia or Brazil. Salgado’s defenders see his photographs as images taken from inside a world of poverty and oppression, images shot from within with compassion, rather than as seen from the outside, with sugarcoating. What strikes me most about Salgado’s photographs is that they are almost always photographs of groups or crowds–perhaps sixty or seventy miners in one image of workers in a Brazilian gold mine, including just one military policeman, right in the foreground, struggling to maintain control of his gun. In his images of the deserts of Ethiopia, Mali or Sudan, however, there are no such crowds, just single figures or couples or groups of four or six, emaciated, hungry, clinging, holding hands, sleeping, dying, carrying burdens and then, unexpectedly, dancing, celebrating, playing games, resting, walking in a procession, even enjoying a sauna.

Salgado began his professional career as an economist, interested in helping Third World countries develop their potential, working with the International Coffee Organization in London, traveling from country to country, while never losing touch with his roots in Brazil. Apparently it was while Salgado was visiting Africa on behalf of the ICO that he decided against simply being a social scientist, coming in from outside and then leaving as soon as possible. Instead, he would rather find ways to spend more time with the people themselves, the real focus of his interest. He borrowed a camera from his wife and, in Fred Ritchin’s words, “found that he could depict them more vividly in photographs than in economic reports.” Essentially, Salgado sees himself as serving the subjects of his photography. In his own words, “The picture is not made by the photographer, the picture is more good or less good in function of the relationship that you have with the people you photograph.” When Salgado visited an Ethiopian refugee camp he stayed there for weeks, in order to better know the people he photographed.

It is fair, I think, to see Salgado’s commitment to photography as an extension of his commitment to public service, particularly in relationship to the marginalized countries, economies and human work forces of the world, giving them not simply an image but also a sense of their own value, a belief in their right to be seen, even if they are not yet heard. On the other hand, it is not entirely surprising that Susan Sontag, while distancing herself from the usual criticisms of Salgado for his “sanctimonious Family of Man-style rhetoric,” should express her own reservations about his work. The problem with his photographs, as she sees it, lies “in their focus on the powerless, reduced to their powerlessness.” She notes that Salgado’s subjects are never named, appearing thus not as individuals but as “representative instances of their occupations, their ethnicities, their plights.” She also suggests, in sharp contrast to Levi Strauss, that “making suffering loom larger, by globalizing it, may spur people to think they ought to ‘care’ more,” while also judging their sufferings and misfortunes as “too vast, too irrevocable, too epic, to be much changed by any local political intervention.”

Both Sontag and Levi Strauss might agree, despite their differences, that it is important not only to interpret images but also to encourage new directions for photography, asking subjectivity to coexist with objectivity, aesthetics with politics. I was pleased that Levi Strauss mentioned Allan Sekula in the context of “social documentary,” a category that would include his monumental Fish Story. Sekula, who sees his work as creating an “iconography of labour,” uses images to both record and capture the human dimension of work patterns and conditions, and as a visual artist to capture that human dimension. “The dominant ‘spectacle’ with its seductive commodities and authoritative visual ‘facts’ could not exist without photographs or photographers,” he notes, while insisting that documentary photography can indeed play a positive role if its subjects are fully respected. Doubtless the debate will continue. One thing is certain–both Sontag’s book and Levi Strauss’s have asked crucial questions about the uneasy relationship that exists between photography, war and propaganda. As Sontag has said, “This is not just a question of images. It is a question of Americans thinking that war is acceptable, and a lot more than acceptable.”