In fact, there are many uses of the innumberable opportunities a modern life supplies for regarding – at a distance, through the medium of photography – other people’s pain. Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A call for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen.

Folks I am beat. Today has been a long day. I volunteer with an organisation based in Sydney known as the Centre for Volunteering. Today the third annual New South Wales Volunteer of the Year Award was held at Parliament House, to celebrate and acknowledge the good works of people within the state who give of their time to help others, often with little recognition.

It was a wonderful morning. Standing in a packed out theatre of volunteers, all of whom evidencing incredible reserves of goodwill and determination, I really felt as if I was fortunate to have played some small part in helping the event go off without a hitch.

So I am quite tired at the moment and am about to prepare dinner for my lovely wife, so this is going to be a short and sweet review. Nevertheless, I mention the above for a reason, which is that oftentimes watching the news, reading the papers (or browsing my personal source of Orwellian ‘Two Minute Hate’, http://www.bocktherobber.com), I can’t help but feel we have become sunk in a mire of corruption, misery, greed and, quite frankly, evil. Is this the result of civilization, a growing sense of impotence at the suffering of others in the world? Or worse again, a voyeuristic impulse to observe and not interfere with the tragic events unfolding on our television screens?

In this discursive examination of the role played by photography in our awareness of atrocities both home and abroad, relating to war and/or violence, Susan Sontag questions to what degree our appreciation of these images is founded on an abiding voyeurism. At one point she quotes from Plato’s Republic, where Leontius, son of Aglaion, is reported to have approached the bodies of just executed criminals, despite his strong feelings of disgust. He runs up to the corpses and cries “There you are, curse you, feast yourselves on that lovely sight“.

How does that anecdote, apart from its classical origins, distinguish itself from a contemporary teenager browsing ‘SomethingAwfulDotCom’ (I’m not going to link to that site here)?

Sontag’s breadth of reference in this book is incredible. She concentrates for the most part on war photography and its origins, covering the period from the Crimean War up to Franco’s atrocities in the Spanish Civil War; from Vietnam to the Serb-Croat war in Bosnia.

She investigates the history of staged war photographs, such as the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. Contrasting with such images of soldiers in war, meant to inspire hope for success in the conflict, or an image snatched from a moment of pure horror that is seared on to the mind of anyone who has seen it – Huynh Cong Ut’s photograph of Vietnamese children running from an American napalm attack, with their skin on fire – we have a delightful description of a photograph taken in London during the Blitz of three men inspecting a wall of books that has survived the bombing. I was inspired to track this image down, as for me it carries great metaphorical weight relating to the value of literature and present it to you below.

 

Sontag questions the argument that war photography has innured in us a sense of banality in response to images of death, by revealing that as far back as 1800 (!) similar concerns were being raised about news reporting. This was before photographs came on to the scene. It is as if exposure to the awareness of the evil that men do is thought of as being threatening to the moral character of the viewer. Hence the level of censorship in current war reporting and the phenomenon of ’embedded journalists’.

There may be a visceral response on the part of the viewer to an image that would be considered horrific, but in no way does that justify the blanket censorship of such imagery. It is only through confronting these images that we can defeat that much maligned apathy towards the suffering of others.

Incisive, wide-ranging and brilliant in its argumentation. Fantastic book.

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