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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.

This book we proudly delicate, to Aussies overseas,

You’re trying to make a safer world, for all our families

Last Saturday I read Fly Away Peter by David Malouf, which featured an astonishing vision of a Hades dedicated to Australian Diggers who lost their lives during World War One. This book features a collection of poems, stories and memories of home, intended to lift the spirit of Australian service personnel working overseas.

That said my favourite story in the collection is Melanie Harris’ Loon Kitten Stories, which has nothing to do with the war in Afghanistan, but does feature a determined kitten named Sarge. This simple tale of the author and her flatmates attempting to break in a fiendishly intelligent feline manages to raise a smile and remind the reader that sometimes the simplest things in life can lift the spirit. A year in the life of one frustrated cat owner becomes an epic story of human versus ball of fur and claws. It is a sweetly endearing comic tale.

Swede by Sergeant Grant Teeboon also is concerned with the furry kind, a police dog in this instance, who takes a distinct dislike to Margaret Thatcher. Then Allan Goode’s Mateship defines that most quintessential of Australian qualities by comparing it to the relationship between two puppies.

For the most part though the book features poems and stories from service personnel telling of difficult experiences in distant lands; with families and loved ones waiting for them at home. It is also a book about Australia and Australian pride, about why the Diggers are so well regarded.

Broken into a series of different sections, some dedicated to humour, even romance, the book reminds us that these are men and women who have left so much behind. It also serves to remind them what is waiting for them when they return. Not everyone agrees on the case for war and certain pieces express the anger of those fighting for a cause they are not convinced is a worthy one. Nevertheless once committed the Diggers will not refuse to serve.

In addition to the intimate thoughts expressed in verse and prose, Postcards from Home also features art and photography dedicated to the sights of Australia. Carlo Travato’s illustrations feature throughout the book, but his drawings of quotidian objects are startlingly detailed. There are also photos of some ordinary things, such as a mother possum with its child. Some contrast the familiar sight of Sydney bay with a certain animal in shot. Another comical image has a rather confused Santa Claus stuck halfway up a post.

A sudden change of tone is offered by Kris Farrant, a Canberra based musician who submitted a series of poems taking their inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu Mythos. At first I was surprised, after all I am very familiar with the line That is not dead which can eternally lie, but I have always considered that New England writer to be something of a cult concern. However, it just goes to show how home itself is a collection of memories and things that are not fixed in the soil of Australia. R.A. Dee’s Charmers is a humourous, yet quirkily romantic tale, without a single squamous in sight (and thank Cthulu for that, a Lovecraft romance is not something I would like to read). Both writers offer contrasting views on life at home….alright not so much with the Cthulu, but you can read Lovecraft at home! They might discourage that in the armed services.

This is a book dedicated to a good cause and is quite a heartfelt at that. Many thanks to Odyssey Books for the review copy.

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