Susan Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others.

The main task for the second part of this Unit is to read Susan Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others.
Sontag says, “The photographs are a means of making ‘real’ (or ‘more real’) matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore.”
When we view photographs of war-torn bodies, or starving children, are we changed? How about the photographer, whether a professional or an amateur, who takes such pictures? Do these photographs teach us about suffering–or do they numb us over time and simply cause us to turn away?
Sontag treats these and other important ethical questions in Regarding the Pain of Others. She also gives a history of photojournalism. In chapters that seem, sometimes, to disagree with one another, she plays the devil’s advocate and views the idea of photographs of suffering. Can gruesome photos be artistic? Should they be? And if a war photo is posed is the effect enhanced or decreased? She considers the impact of candid photos versus the technologically manipulated, and more.
Key Concepts: image as rhetoric, illusion of consensus, shock and apathy, the beautification of war, marginalization
• Sontag, S. (2003). Regarding the pain of others. New York: Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (Available at the Memorial University bookstore)
In the text you will notice that Sontag mentions a number of photographs, and other kinds of photographic images (like films, news footage, etc.). I am working on compiling a list of links to these images to add to the course. In the meantime, I highly recommend that you look them up for yourself online when possible – and if you do find some of these sources I would be most grateful if you could post them in the “Student Found Resources” section.
Online Lectures
• Introducing Susan Sontag
Guide Questions
Part 1

  1. What does Sontag mean by the following statement: “Images of war are a kind of rhetoric. They create an illusion of consensus”
  2. Summarize Sontag’s take on Virginia Woolf’s idea about photographs of atrocities. Does she agree with Woolf? Why or why not?
  3. “No “we” should be taken for granted when the concept is looking at other people’s pain”. What does this mean? What are the examples she uses to illustrate this point?
  4. “To the militant, identity is everything”. What point is Sontag trying to make here?
  5. War is either “other” or “inevidible”. “Who” is Sontag talking about here?
  6. Of the book War Against War Sontag says that the author “didn’t make the mistake of thinking that photos could speak for themselves. What seems to be the importance of “captions” for Sontag?
    Part 2
  7. What is the significance of the quote “you give us twenty minutes, we’ll give you the world”? for Sontag.
  8. What is the perceived difference, for Sontag, between how different kinds of mediums affect people? (i.e. think about the quote “a photograph has only one language”)
  9. Outline the significance of the Sontag’s idea that “a catastrophe that is experienced will often seem eerily like its representation”.
  10. How is it that photos can be shocking and cliché at the same time?
  11. Why is it that photographs have come to have such authority over other mediums? How does the concepts of “objectivity” and “point of view” figure here?
  12. Sontag maintains that, in relation to the photography of war and other photography, “people want the weight of witness without the weight of artistry”. What does this mean? What is the “anti-art style” of photography? Does Sontag think it’s more “authentic”?
  13. Why does Sontag call Larry Burrows photos of the American presence in Vietnam “another gain in shock”?
  14. For Sontag, why is it that “the photographer intentions do not determine the photographs meaning”?
    Part 3
  15. Outline the discussion Sontag posits a difference between an artist’s rendering of suffering (in drawing, etching, sculpture and the like) and photographs. What is that difference?
  16. Does Sontag’s admission that the photo can be aligned with truth, in a way that other visual art cannot, make the photographer, viewer and context obsolete?
  17. Sontag claims that a photo need not be “manipulated” to misrepresent. Explain what she means here (she talk about this in relation to the paintings of Goya. Does she think Goya’s paintings are reliable as evidence?)
  18. Gardner arranged photographs to show “the dreadful details” of war. What are Sontag’s thoughts on the staging of photographs?
  19. Discusses iconic photos like “The Kiss”, Sontag suggests that we “want” something of photographs. What is is that we want?
  20. Why are photographers are held to a higher level of journalistic responsibility now more than ever before?
    Part 4
  21. “New demands are made on reality in the era of cameras. The real thing may not be fearsome enough”. What is the significance of this quote from Sontag?
  22. What affect did the reaction of the public to the photographs of the Vietnam War have on how WW1 was “allowed” to be depicted? Note Sontag’s claim that “[m]aking people feel queasy about struggles for which they are being mobilized is not the habit of mainstream media”.
  23. What do you think is meant by Ernst Junger’s claim, pointed out by Sontag. that “there is no war without photography”
  24. Can you find any examples of what Sontag, in part three calls the “anti-art style” of news photography?