John's Reviews > Regarding the Pain of Others

Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag
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Sep 13, 09

Read in July, 2009

Sontag's book examines how we receive photographic and artistic representations of human suffering. In the end, while she seems cautiously optimistic that photographs can have some positive impact on our perspective of suffering, they still don't hold a candle to actually being there and experiencing the suffering first-hand.

Most interesting to me was the theme of photographic interpretation running through the book, as she acknowledges the reality that we often see photographs as a factual record of some incident while failing to recognize the situatedness of the photographer. This reality saps some of the "real" out of photographs, for they are often staged and they are always framed, therefore only ever showing us a small sliver of the larger tragedy.

I also appreciated the world-weary tone of the essay, a perspective Sontag has earned through her experience as a first-hand observer in Sarajevo during the Serb-Bosnian conflict. She rightly argues that no one over a certain age should get to walk around blindly innocent to human depravity. It's too prominent, and too well-displayed by pretty much every media outlet, for us to walk in some kind of naivete about the human condition. For all the conflictedness I feel about our being desensitized to violence through the media, this is certainly one benefit: an honesty about who we really are as a race. Whatever photographs and art portraying suffering and death do or do not tell us about a particular conflict or tragedy, they do witness powerfully to the universality of human depravity.
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