I had much the same reaction to the book as you did: So many of Sontag’s points are cast in a vague and passive “it is widely believed that …” voice that it was frustratingly difficult to take issue with anything she said. I suspect that you and I, on the other hand, will have a great deal to discuss.
I do agree with her, though, that the question of whether to take such pictures—of the victims of atrocities, the condemned, the dead—is moot: They will be taken. Moreover, my admittedly somewhat limited experience with these things tells me that survivors and family members are often the first to insist that the world be shown what has happened, so the question of exploitation doesn’t come up as often as one might think. In fact, if anything, I think there’s been a colossal failure of nerve on the part of the American press, in its patronizing attempt to spare the delicate sensibilities of readers by not showing exactly what the consequences are of mayhem around the world and American foreign policy. To put it bluntly: How are we supposed to vote if we don’t see the bodies our voting affects? Isn’t that part of journalism’s job?
That said, there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it, and Salgado is the perfect test case. Because I don’t think, I really don’t think that a picture of an atrocity should be a good picture, a beautiful picture, a well-composed picture printed on good paper stock, rich in tonal variation, etc., etc. Instead, and for starters, these days such a picture had better be in color because black and white virtually screams “lovely and artistic artifact.” What’s more, it should be casually composed, hastily framed, only competently printed, and so on. And wherever possible, the names of the victims should be in the caption, lest we think of them as mere abstractions—“a Bosnian woman,” “a dead soldier,” “victims of a lynch mob,” and so on. Salgado fails on all these counts, and so do many, if not most, celebrated photographers of disaster.
Sontag herself considers the idea that fine pictures of bad things are misguided and then more or less dismisses it (I think). And I can see how such a principle could come across as little more than aesthetic slumming. But it’s not, I don’t think. It has to do with the fundamental properties of the medium.
Our natural instinct is to be glad beautiful things exist. (This is why it’s OK that paintings of, for example, the crucifixion are beautiful: Christ’s Passion, by virtue of its redemptive results, was ultimately a good thing.) So when I look at, say, one of Salgado’s spectacular pictures of workers in a Brazilian gold mine, my first instinct is to think, “Oh, how neat that these thousands of men should be down there, doing that, so that I can see such a wonderful picture of it.” And this is not, needless to say, the appropriate response. So I remind myself that these are miserable lives; and then I hate the picture.
Photojournalism, to me, is about Being There; the victims being there, the perpetrators being there, the photographer being there, and the observer of the photograph being there by proxy. Everything else is distraction, condolence, excuse.
Sontag herself suggests that photography of this sort is the only medium in which craft may be a disadvantage, but I think she’s wrong: Video is the same way, and for the same reasons. If the guy who shot the Rodney King video had bothered to frame it and light it properly (assuming such a thing was possible in the circumstances), his efforts to do so would seem obscene and would add nothing to the impact of the tape. Same goes for Susan and Alan Raymond’s wonderful documentary The Police Tapes.
Of course, artlessness can be just another art; there’s not much to be done about that. But on the whole, I’d be happier if we could avoid what what a great social thinker and emancipator once called “a cheap holiday in other people’s misery.”
Now, a few questions for you, to answer or ignore as you see fit: Are there any photographs that you cannot bring yourself to look at? Is there anything you think should be off-limits to photographers? What do you make of Sontag’s rather odd—I thought—claim that men are naturally pro-war and women naturally against it (Condi Rice, please call home)? How common, and how dangerous, do you think voyeurism is with regard to these kinds of images? Why do you think Sontag was wrong about Debord? What do you make of her ending gambit—that one who hasn’t been in a war “can’t understand, can’t imagine” what it’s like? Wouldn’t that make the whole topic of war photography superfluous? Why don’t we see the kinds of difficult photographs we used to see? Why, for example, is the most iconic image of the Afghan conflict that portrait of a pretty, green-eyed refugee from National Geographic—a picture that tells us nothing about anything? And what, after all, do you think of Salgado?