Sontag s essay is a conversation with Woolf Interrogates some of Woolf s positions about war, barbarity and the use of photography

Save this PDF as:

Size: px
Start display at page:

Download "Sontag s essay is a conversation with Woolf Interrogates some of Woolf s positions about war, barbarity and the use of photography"


1 Sontag s essay is a conversation with Woolf Interrogates some of Woolf s positions about war, barbarity and the use of photography Sontag: photographs of atrocities do not prevent the occurrence of more atrocities Eg. Photos, such as those by Ernst Friedrich (War Against War), published in 1930s, did not stave off W.W.II 1

2 Images of atrocity are more ubiquitous in our time than in Woolf s For those who have not experienced war, understanding of war comes through photographs and television images Yet photographs are not objective For example, photographer may alter or enhance the environment or circumstances of the photograph The photograph may be staged 2

3 Robert Doisneau Le Baiser de l'hotel de Ville, Paris, 1950 Man and woman hired for the day for the photograph Felice Beato enhanced the scene of the Sikandarbagh Palace where the British troops encountered Sepoy defenders He scattered additional human bones in the courtyard 3

4 Matthew Brady and his team moved a dead solider to a more photogenic site at Gettybsburg Included a prop rifle Sontag argues, [w]hat is odd is not that so many of the iconic news photos of the past, including some of the best-remembered pictures from the Second World War, appear to have been staged. It is that we are surprised to learn that they were staged, and always disappointed (55). Icon: A person or thing regarded as a representative symbol, esp. of a culture or movement; a person, institution, etc., considered worthy of admiration or respect (O.E.D.) Iconic photograph is one which is representative of a particular historic or cultural event 4

5 Irony is that the photographs that speak to us of a particular incident, that may be an emblem of a moment in time, are constructed and not authentic Sontag argues that Only starting with the Vietnam war is it virtually certain that none of the best-known photographs were set-ups. And this is essential to the moral authority of these images (57). 5

6 Huynh Cong Ut Vietnam 1972 Children fleeing South Vietnamese napalm attack Yet, we know that this photograph was staged by executioner, Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan Prisoner likely wouldn t have been shot without the witnesses 6

7 Sontag speculates that the advent of T.V. meant that the photographer now had competition but the practice of inventing dramatic news pictures, staging them for the camera, seems on its way to becoming a lost art (58). Optimistic? Another way in which photographs can be manipulated is in the way in which the photographer frames a chosen slice of reality Or, he or she is constrained in his choice of photographic material 7

8 British populace was unsupportive of the Crimean War (1854-6) British government hired Roger Fenton to take photos of soldiers for display on home front However, Fenton was forbidden to show the dead, the maimed, or the ill (49) Fenton took numerous staged photographs of soldiers Captain Halford, 5 th Dragoon Guards 8

9 Valley of the Shadow of Death Site where 600 British soldiers were ambushed Immortalized in Alfred, Lord Tennyson s poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade Fenton added the cannonballs on the road Not unlike the situation in the Falklands when Margaret Thatcher s government only allowed 2 photojournalists to accompany the British troops American-Iraq war limited to images originating from American military; NBC footage of Iraqi soldiers being carpet bombed with explosives, napalm, radioactive DU (depleted uranium) rounds, and cluster bombs as they headed north. (66), was not shown. American involvement bombed at the end of the war, on February 27, were in Afghanistan in 2001 off-limits to news photographers 9

10 Captions are crucial in the process of interpreting photographs Often interpreted as woman watching for planes in Spanish Civil war In fact, photo taken at a meeting before the war started 10

11 Between W.W.I and W.W.II, war photography was largely part of left-wing dissidence W.W.II shifted perspective; evidence of the Holocaust justified the war photojournalism now part of new consensus Photographers interested in wars of unusual interest (33). As a result, only a few wars are photographed and far crueler wars are ignored or are under represented in the media (notably civil war in Sudan, Iraqi war against the Kurds, Russian invasion of Chechnya) Yet, during the Vietnam era, Sontag argues, photos, such as those taken by Larry Burrows turned the American public against the war During the Vietnam era, war photography became, normatively, a criticism of war (65). Vietnam seems to be an exception to her generalization At the time of Sontag s writing, attitudes to American military were high pictures taken by Larry Burrows in Vietnam of wretched hollow-eyed GIs that once seemed subversive of militarism and imperialism may seem inspirational. Their revised subject ordinary American young men doing their unpleasant, ennobling duty (38). 11

12 Additionally, Sontag argues, that for well known photographers, we expect pictures of suffering Serious photographers don t do sunsets Yet, why do we look at pictures of the suffering or dying? On the one hand, to capture that ultimate moment is something only cameras can do (59) Participate in a moment that is common to all of us, but is as yet denied us On the other, there exists an unstated ethics involved in looking: Rights of the grieving family good taste May undermine patriotic urge Attitudes toward mourning in Western culture 12

13 However, the more remote the geographical location, the more likely the dead will be not be accorded these consideration Dead bodies of our soldiers are not shown, only theirs Presence of dead and dying in remote places confirms our own economic, moral superiority; provides reassurance that we are safe: [Pictures of villagers dying of AIDS] carry a double message. They show a suffering that is outrageous, unjust, and should be repaired. They confirm that this is the sort of thing which happens in that place. The ubiquity of those photographs, and those horrors, cannot help but nourish belief in the inevitability of tragedy in the benighted or backward that is, poor parts of the world (71). Western perspective tends to see those with darker complexions in remote places as exotic and other The spectacle of the suffering of the other is permitted in a way our own is not The other regarded only as someone to be seen, not someone, (like us) who also sees. But surely the wounded Taliban soldier begging for his life whose fate was pictured prominently in The New York Times also had a wife, children, parents, sisters and brothers, some of whom may one day come across the three color photographs of their husband, father, son, brother being slaughtered if they have not already seen them (73). 13

14 Expectations of Photographs Ideology that war photos should appall Too much beauty is seen as suspicious; an aesthetic photo is seen as detracting from the subject matter Asethetic photo is seen as disrespectful of the subject matter compromis[es] the picture s status as a document (77) cinematic photos, that look like movie stills, are also seen as inauthentic look arranged Sebastião Salgado Migrations unnamed subjects in pictures from 39 countries Suffering feels too epic, compassion becomes abstract feel overwhelmed by the suffering rather than motivated to change it Sebastião Salgado Migrations In the camp at Kibumba, thousands of Rwandan refugees die daily of cholera, dysentery, and starvation. French Army tractors pile the bodies up against mounds of volcanic lava and then cover them with earth. Death has become a management problem. Zaire, astiaosalgado/e1/ 14

15 Because we are constantly subjected to images, we need to be aware of the ways in which sentiment can be used to manipulate us At the same time, the shock value of photos can wear off Or can it? 15

16 Photographs as Memory Photographs now seen as representative of our culture, who we are icon stands for collective memory of an event Yet, collective memory is not really memory, it is a choice of what we deem to be important about us Restricted access to photos of torture of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison; American government wanted to control image of American military and by association, Americans. Memory museum repository of photos from cultural groups that have experienced genocide Testament to suffering, but also invoke the miracle of survival (87). Act as reminder for vigilance Efforts to build memory museums to the Holocaust and to the Armenian genocide have had support in the U.S. 16

17 Yet, efforts to construct a Museum of the History of Slavery in Washington, D.C. have not been successful Sontag argues that such a museum would implicate the U.S. as a nation that inflicted genocide conflicts with the idea of America as a country that sees itself as the solution or cure (88), rather than as a perpetrator. Sontag queries, how are we to respond to photographs of suffering that are remote in time, for example, those of the black victims of lynching in the early 20 th century? Impossible to stop the lynching or punish the perpetrators Is the purpose to awaken indignation? To make us feel bad ; that is, to appall and sadden? To help us mourn? (92). 17

18 How to respond to photographs of suffering from remote locales? We may back away from such photos, not, as has been suggested, from a steady diet of violence, but from feelings of impotence, anger and frustration Sympathy can be impertinent since it suggests that we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering (102); we remove any complicity. Struggle is to find a way to move from passivity and hopelessness into action 18