The Book Club

Photography and Morality

Dear Jim,

Our job for the next three days is to consider and discuss Susan Sontag’s new book-length essay, Regarding the Pain of Others. It is—she says so herself—a sort of annex to her 1977 book On Photography. Where that book ranged broadly across aesthetic questions particular to the medium, this one is specifically concerned with photographs of the victims of disaster, war in particular. Sontag continues to exercise her impeccable sense of critical timing: Our preoccupation with photography and disaster have both risen to such a pitch that the present moment just about demands this book. The photography of disaster is a subject that has engaged me for years, for a variety of reasons, so that I had to prevent myself from having an opinion about the book before I’d even read it. To be sure, I didn’t know where she would come down on the central conundrum, best expressed as a series of questions: Is it right to take and publish pictures of the suffering and the dead? Whom do such pictures serve, ultimately? Assuming they can be, how should they be taken, in order to prevent any number of undesirable outcomes: aestheticization, objectification, voyeurism? And if, on the other hand, these pictures should not be taken or published, how would the absence of a photographic record help the world?

Such questions must occur at least occasionally to anyone who looks at newspapers or reads magazines. Is it moral to publish photos of people jumping from the towers on 9/11, for example? Or to broadcast the videotape made by Daniel Pearl’s captors, which shows his execution? I’ve long been generally preoccupied with the historically fluctuating taboo on photographing the dead, and I had to confront all the questions raised above when I was asked to write the introduction to James Nachtwey’s collection Inferno (2000). Nachtwey is a front-line photographer whose pictures are published in the major media, notably Time. His pictures are grim, harrowing, and, troublingly, often beautiful. Inferno is an enormous volume that ranges across the miseries of the 1990s, from war in Kosovo to famine in Somalia to massacre in Rwanda. Nachtwey’s courage, honesty, idealism, and goodwill are as unquestionable as his talents: He takes his pictures because he believes they will make a difference. I was proud to write an introduction to his work, but I was never able to resolve for myself the question of just how the pictures would make a difference, and what sort of difference they could make.

Sontag begins her book by evoking Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas (1938), a dialogue on the roots of war. In the course of the book, Woolf describes photographs released to the foreign press by the Spanish Republic showing the ghastly results of the aerial bombing of civilian targets by Franco’s forces(cf. Guernica). Woolf tells her possibly imaginary interlocutor that looking at these photographs is a key moral test: If they don’t make you repudiate war, then you are a monster. Sontag points out, in response, that war is never the generic matter that across-the-board pacifists say it is—that pictures such as the ones Woolf is talking about could be used to drum up fervor for the war on the side of the republic as much as to encourage anti-war sentiment. She also notes that our relationship to photographs is very different from that of anyone in Woolf’s time. Since we are inundated by images around the clock, we are simultaneously more jaded, more myopic, more critical, more resigned, and so on. (Interestingly, Sontag does not make an issue of the fact that the photos are discussed but not reproduced in Woolf’s book.) She goes on to unroll a history of such images in the course of the century-and-a-half since Roger Fenton “covered” the Crimean War. (She set me straight on that; I’d always thought of Fenton as the first photographer to record the horror of war, whereas he was a lax propagandist for empire, not what you’d imagine from the one widely reproduced picture, The Valley of the Shadow of Death.) Her examples are superbly chosen; her quotes are apposite.

Sontag’s argument is pretty near to incontrovertible. It is, in sum, on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-hand-that. It is so fair, in fact, that I find it hard to imagine anyone really taking issue with this book. Those who find it morally unacceptable to take, publish, or examine photographs of the victims of war and other engineered human miseries will find plenty of material here to bolster their case. Those who feel otherwise will rally to Sontag’s conclusion, which is more or less that you can’t prevent the taking or reproduction of such photographs, that to look away is feeble, and that the pictures and their dissemination might do some good after all. I want to take issue with her on side matters—such as her fairly serious misrepresentation of the ideas of Guy Debord and her puzzling dis of Walker Evans—but I can’t really fault her main thrust. So, I guess we’ll have to construct our own controversy. What do you think of Sebastião Salgado, Jim?