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.