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Regarding the Pain of Others
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93 of 105 people found the following review helpful
on April 27, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I couldn�t help but wonder what Susan Sontag would have to say about a friend of mine, and the manner in which he gets his daily news. First thing, each day, when he gets to work, he logs into his computer, surfs to Yahoo, and looks at a slide show of all the top news photos for the day. He never reads any articles. At most he reads a caption or two, but mainly he looks at the pictures. How many others perceive the world through Yahoo slideshows? It�s a bit scary. I think Sontag would agree that many people view the world primarily through the images they receive through the media.
In her revealing book, Regarding The Pain of Others, Susan Sontag examines the many issues associated with the photography of warfare, genocide, and atrocity. She discusses the history of such images, why they are produced, the importance of the viewer�s perspective, censorship, and many other related topics. In presenting her ideas, Sontag moves through a wide variety of history and literature ( Plato�s Republic, the Crimean War, the Khmer Rouge, the Nazi concentration camps, Bosnia). Oddly enough, there are no photos in the book. Many photographs that are referred to are described enough to understand what is being said, but the actual photos would have been a much better addition. (Most of the photos referenced are well known and can easily be located online.) It would have been revealing to know why no photos were included.
Many insights regarding war and photography are put forth. Some seemed like just well explained common sense, others were revealing. As a photographer, one concept that was mentioned, I found very profound. I�ve often wondered why photography hasn�t been replaced by video in the manner in which photography displaced painting. Although video certainly dominates the entertainment industry, photos haven�t disappeared and they continue to thrive. Sontag asserts that a photograph is the basic visual unit of memory. We remember in terms of photos much easier that entire video sequences. Certain events in our life, for example, the Apollo 11 moon landing, are recalled through the photographs we saw of those events. Although you will probably want a video of your wedding, it is certain there will be photos. For that reason, there will always be a place for photographs. In fact, you might have noticed during the recent coverage of the war in Iraq, many of the television news channels would play sequences of still photos. That is how we remember visually, in still images.
My only complaint is the book�s size, 126 pages, seemed small compared to the cost. Also the font and spacing are a bit large (remember that trick when writing school papers?). I had the feeling that some greedy marketing person was in the loop somewhere. Once I began to read though, my disappointment with book�s size went away. I recommend this thoughtful work and hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
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62 of 72 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
As I watch the constant war show on CNN, am I a spectator experiencing war vicariously as entertainment, and if so, should I not be watching? On the other hand, if I choose not to watch am I hiding from reality and turning my back on the soldiers who after all represent me?
If you experience any kind of discomfort with the constant coverage, then Sontag can offer some guidance.
She concentrates mainly on photographs rather than video, but this enables her to draw comparisons between the present and past conflicts. Her elegant potted history of war photography from the Crimean war to today is in some ways a rebuttal to the notion that the ubiquity of media renders modern war substantially different to historical war. If video footage defines our experience of war, photographs become our memories, and this is no less true now than in the 1860's.
If this sounds dry, then I do the book an injustice. First of all, Sontag is able to maintain page-turning readability without sacrificing scholarship. Second, even the most careful reading won't take more than 3 hours. Third, her arguments are forceful and in some cases passionate.
I found "regarding the pain of others" erudite, persuasive and strangely moving.
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27 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on May 21, 2003
Format: Hardcover
In this insightful essay, Sontag springboards from an analysis of "Three Guineas" by Virginia Woolf into a discussion about the effects of photography and televised imagery on modern culture and ideas about war and violence. Weaving excerpts from works by Leonardo da Vinci, Plato, Wordsworth, and others, including her own previous work "On Photography", she leads readers on a journey into our own psyches and ways of thinking and viewing the world, and pushes us to examine with conscious knowledge the usage of images. I was especially taken with the idea that it is entirely human to turn away from these pictures of suffering, which are often used as a form of entertainment in the modern world. Sontag rightfully doesn't offer answers or platitudes, but instead indicates a welcoming of our own humanity's foibles as a way to deal with the obligations of conscience and the limits of sympathy.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on April 14, 2014
Format: Paperback
How do you cope with violent imagery depicted on the news, in documentaries, and even in fiction? War and violence are pervasive aspects of the culture we live in. In Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others, the author explores the impact of visual representations of suffering on the world. This book explores the concept of spectacle as it relates to cruelty and violence. Sontag explores photographs from America's Civil War, the attacks on the World Trade Center, racial hate crimes, and other events throughout history.

One of the most compelling features of this book is the opening, which uses an essay written by Virginia Woolf, "Three Guineas," to introduce the reader to the gruesome nature of war. It poses an intriguing question that will make you want to continue reading. Sontag addresses the topic with sincerity and looks beyond the "emblems of suffering" to address the ethics and psychology behind the photos.

Sontag is well-equipped to write this book, which has been researched thoroughly. She studied at major universities like Oxford and Harvard before writing collections of essays and several novels. One of her previous works, "On Photography," also addresses the impact cameras have had on our lives. Here, the focus on images of violence, hits home for me with several lingering questions: does the publication of violent photos encourage the public to oppose war or take a passive position? Do the images objectify the injured in a way that shapes our opinions of their life's value. It also built on my current interest of how photographs have been used in health, and in particular mental health. I am real fan of Sander Gilman's books, of which Face of Madness felt like a real gem but Seeing the Insane is definitely my favorite.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon April 9, 2008
Format: Paperback
In her On Photography, which appeared 35 years ago, Susan Sontag worried that the public's continuous exposure to horrific photos of the violence of war might backfire. The purpose (or at least one of the purposes) of such photos is to rouse opposition to the cruelty of war. But the continuous publication of them can surfeit and benumb, encouraging instead public passivity.

In her Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag rethinks this claim (even though it's now become received wisdom), suggesting that such photos in fact haunt us. True, our attraction to images of suffering can be prurient (Plato, in the Republic, was the first to catalog this human curiosity). The way in which a photo of suffering is framed, moreover, can transform it from an object of horror into one (primarily) of heroism. But notwithstanding these and other manipulations, photos of war victims remain what Sontag calls "emblems of suffering" that awaken us to the fact that the violence of warfare is very real indeed, and that we may be complicitous in it, notwithstanding the fact that, as "spectators," we are far removed from the imaged violence. Photographs shouldn't be "supposed to repair our ignorance about the history and causes of the suffering [they] pick out and frame." But they are effective "invitation[s] to pay attention" (p. 117). Viewing photographs of suffering is no substitute for hard thinking about war, murderous violence, and our moral responsibilities. But photos can spark and fuel such reflection (p. 103). For those of us who will never have firsthand experience of the horrors of war, this vicarious exposure can be a moral catalyst. That we can turn away from such photos does nothing to "impugn the ethical value of an assault by images" (p. 116).

Like all Sontag-authored extended essays, this one is so rich in ideas and insights that at times it seems (but ony, I believe, seems) to ramble. Along the way, Sontag discusses the history of war photography, the ethical dilemma of merely "looking at" atrocities rather than doing something about them, the French school of "the spectacle" founded by Guy Debord and made "respectacle" by Baudillard and Bataille. Chapter headings would be profoundly helpful here, as well as an occasional summary. But Sontag presumably wants to provoke thought in her readers, and hesitates to provide roadmaps.

Moreover, accompanying photographs would be helpful, especially since Sontag refers to a good baker's dozen to illustrate her arguments. The curious thing--and perhaps this was her point--is that any educated reader is likely to form an immediate memory image of the photo under discussion. We are, indeed, haunted by such photos.

An intriguing, genuinely thought-provoking book--and thought-provoking books are rare these days.
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19 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on October 26, 2003
Format: Hardcover
It is photography, beginning with the Civil War, that almost exclusively provides us a window to the suffering of others. Ms. Sontag's essay explores the capacity of the photographic arts to convey such suffering. Throughout, she identifies photographs that have seemed to distill the image of war in a particularly unforgettable way, that is, to imprint elements of suffering, both uniquely associated with a specific war at a specfic point in time and more generally attributable to war. Although she refers to her book's "argument," it seems more precise to maintain that, like the subject of her essay, her aim here is to assess the power and the limits of photography to convey pain to those viewers who enjoy the luxury of being detached from the specific suffering so depicted. Stated differently, her essay itself develops an "image" of the art of photography and its effect on spectators who enjoy various degrees of detachment from images before them.
Having been one of the more "provincial" spectators she describes in her book, Regarding the Pain of Others appears to provide an excellent source to discover particularly powerful photographs, at least as commended by Ms. Sontag who has been seriously contemplating the "war image" in all its manifestations for at least two decades. It would have been helpful for the book to have included some of the examples she describes. (This is Art History without the art.) There are times, too, when she seems to forget that suffering is not a stranger in the so-called developed, modern world. The haunting images, captured by photographers on 9/11, of men and women jumping to certain death from the upper floors of the World Trade Center to avoid consumption in the inferno that it had become, will forever retain the sad distinction of being among this century's first "representations" of the continuing horror of suffering in war.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 9, 2007
Format: Paperback
Sontag's essay is concerned with the moral implications of looking, through photographs, at people who are suffering or dead. Much of the book is a history of war photography, which is intimately bound with the history of public tolerance of violent photos. While Sontag does not provide any revolutionary ideas, the essay is a succinct and thorough examination of the issues surrounding photography. And, if there is no grand thesis to keep in mind, her exploration is full of smaller, thought-provoking observations. She notes, for example, that displaying photos of dead bodies is less taboo the more foreign and faraway those bodies are. Until she pointed it out, I had not even realised how North American coverage of 9-11 included practically no pictures of corpses, although picturing the dead in foreign conflicts is an expectable way of rallying support for the victims. Her remarks on the way a photo replaces the memory of the thing itself are, if not surprising, good to have restated.

Sontag also does not ignore the uncomfortable reality of the pleasure which most people have in regarding suffering, but in this as in many areas of her essay, I wished that she would go further, spend more time teasing out and elaborating her analysis -- I wished, in other words, that she had written a real book-length book, not a long essay. On the other hand, the incompleteness of her discussion means that it is particularly good at stimulating further thought, at opening questions rather than closing them off.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 7, 2009
Format: Paperback
The title Regarding the Pain of Others refers to the dominant way in which we as modern humans view war and other atrocities, namely we regard such horrors through printed images. The book is concerned primarily with photographs but sometimes delves into films. Sontag suggests that we are inundated with wave after wave of depictions of atrocities, and it is this flood that defines our experience of war and atrocities. The larger question that Sontag proposes is what is the result of this flood of images? What reactions does it cause in humans? Is this good or is this bad? I think the key to the book is to accept this flood of images as a system. All systems create a dominant view. Sontag tries to define this dominant view that emerges from this flood. She looks at all of this in all its complications. She is clearly not a simple minded thinker. And that is the pleasure of this book. As she gazes at war photography (we don't even have to see it; we have seen enough of it to know), we think about how we ourselves experience atrocity and war photography in our daily lives. When I look at war pictures I am always surprised at the cruelty of human beings. Susan Sontag writes that someone who is perennially surprised about the reoccurrence of human depravity and who feels constantly incredulous about the capability of human beings to inflict cruelty on others has not reached psychological adulthood. And I think she is correct in that; I, like many others, have not. I find I am still interested in why and who's to blame. Perhaps being concerned with why and who is to blame isn't constructive; it may only serve to keep one from truly regarding the suffering in the world. Does living in flood of pictures and horror spectacles bolster this? Does it make us feel so remote from others that distant acts of human cruelty seem alien to us. I'm not sure, but the book has certainly made me think about it. This is certainly a book to read and if possible read again!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 1, 2013
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I taught the fourth essay in this book to my students last week to launch our visual rhetoric unit. The pictures Sontag describes are all available online through Google images and are helpful in understanding her arguments. Sontag is primarily dealing with still images, and although some mention of cinema is explored, a conversation on cinema would be more appropriate when reading through her other essays.

Much of her argument in this text feels lifted from Jean Baudrillard's discussion of hyperreality. Although she does mention him, as well as Guy Debord's "Society of the Spectacle" once later in this collection of essays, it feels inadequate. Much of what she discusses could be read as theoretical applications of these thinkers, therefore her argument is not uniquely her own. The application she proposes, however, is worth reading the book.

Finally, the fourth essay is included in many composition readers, but it is definitely necessary that the teacher understands the arguments she puts forth earlier in this book because the fourth essay is building on previous chapters. The students will walk away understanding her message, however, an explanation of the previous arguments would enhance their comprehension.
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7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on August 22, 2005
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I think this book would be more aptly called "Regarding War Photography" or "War Photography as Metaphor" (keeping Sontag-style titles intact). Unfortunately misnamed, this is a book about the effect of war photography on the viewer. It's about representation and what the image means to us, what the absence of an image does or doesn't mean to us. Not a book about the pain of others, it demonstrates how images of others' pain shape our views of their pain.

Sontag writes a brief history of war imagery, beginning with the advent of photography (the result of the amount of time required to take a picture) to faster and lighter cameras (likely to capture, rather than to re-recreate or to show only war's aftermath), to television, to the present (the internet, constant access and the expectation of constant access to images). She goes back, pre-photography, to discuss a few specific paintings that depict war or other suffering. She describes the methodology of the photographs--often naming specific images and photographers--analyzes their impact, how the images are viewed during the war and, because of the images, the war thought of by future generations.

Her interpretations are largely familiar and unchanged since "On Photography," but "Regarding the Pain of Others" discusses only war photography. That her analyses are expected doesn't detract from them; Sontag's input about this topic is valuable -- some early war photographs are staged; specific atrocities have become more urgent or real after being viewed; photojournalism is given a special veracity unlike other art forms; images shape our memories of wars that took place in prior generations. Sontag is clear about disbelieving in "collective memory" and states that it is the artifacts, photographs, we are left with that determine our feelings.

Worth seeking out is a shorter piece Sontag wrote called "Regarding the Torture of Others" (quite true to its title) after the Abu Ghirab prison photographs were released. In a way, it's a finer example of what this book achieves, though far more condensed.

Toward the end, she revisits "On Photography." She's recently re-read it and isn't sure if she agrees with certain elements. She debates herself in a way, though in my opinion, only in the smaller scheme of her general argument about representation and its relationship to fact and result. On a personal level, I was glad to see her revisit "On Photography." It read as a celebration of her groundbreaking work and ways of thinking about photographic representation. The circular nature, yet diffierent topics, discussed at the start and near end of her brilliant life and career rendered this, for me, satisfying and somewhat sad. I will miss her flow of opinions.
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