Thursday, May 28, 2020

Compassion and Knowledge

Regarding the Pain of Others 

Regarding the Pain of Others

“Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question of what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing 'we' can do -- but who is that 'we'? -- and nothing 'they' can do either -- and who are 'they' -- then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.”   ― Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

I read this as I was a participant in a discussion group at The Art Institute of Chicago. Many people view Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others as a re-examination of or a follow-up to her previous book, On Photography; although the two works do not view photography from the same perspective. Regarding the Pain of Others, which is generally an essay about war photography, primarily covers the theme of heartlessness, with a keen interest on the inhumanity and brutality caused by war.

First off, Sontag posits that there is a problem in the way people read pictures. As much as a picture unravels real events captured on camera, it also conceals some additional details that would help in getting a more unobstructed view of the identity and history of the real moment. Therefore, the manner in which individuals interpret images becomes an extremely subjective process, since personal understandings and beliefs will largely dictate the reading of these pictures. Sontag writes,
"Images of dead civilians and smashed houses may serve to quicken hatred of the foe."

Sontag also reconsiders her earlier position about the emotional implications of horrendous images on the viewer. In On Photography, Sontag maintained that images could make the viewer sympathize with the victim. In Regarding the Pain of Others, however, she revises her position, questioning whether a photograph can truly have such an effect in the modern media’s context.

Some would call this "atrocity photography," that sort of photography whose subject is the death or misery of other people. The book was, of course, penned in the shadow of September 11, and it seems, unfortunately, to bear a slightly burdensome responsibility to comment on the importance of things. This, however, has never been a problem for Ms. Sontag. While I appreciated her earlier essay collection, On Photography, more than this photographic excursion (perhaps because it is a better essay collection) I found the insights here worth considering. Perhaps I was put off by her beginning with a reference to Virginia Woolf's book Three Guineas which I did not find persuasive. However, I still found the essays in this miniature tome challenging and thought-provoking.


Kathy's Corner said...

Hi James, A major biography of Susan Sontag was published last year and I definitely want to read it. She was a glamerous famous female intellectual starting back in the 1960's and I don't think America had seen a woman quite like her before. I also think as with James Baldwin that she lived during a time when she had to keep her sexual orientation hidden and I think that gave both of these writers an outsider status, at war to a certain extent, with society around them and it made for such powerful essays.

Brian Joseph said...

This is fascinating stuff. Sontags theories on photography seem to really dig into perception and bias.

That quotation on Compassion rings true. Without action it is often shallow.

James said...

Thanks for your observations. Sontag had a close relationship with The Art Institute of Chicago which was brought home to me when we discussed both this book and On Photography.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. Sontag was insightful in many ways.