Suffering in Photographs
Photographs are used to document history, however selected images are chosen to do so. Often times these images graphically show the cruelty of mankind. In her book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag asks, "What does it mean to protest suffering, as distinct from acknowledging it?" To acknowledge suffering is just to capture it, to point it out and show somebody else that it exists. In order to protest suffering, there has to be some sort of moral decision that what is shown in the photograph is wrong, and a want from the viewer to change that.
Sontag says that throughout history, things focused on in art and history tend to be the "product of wrath, divine or human." There is much art showing the suffering of Christ and the executions of Christian martyrs. These pictures are supposed to bring up emotion strong enough to make people have faith. "The viewer may commiserate with the sufferer's pain . . . feel admonished or inspired to model faith and fortitude." This is an example of protesting suffering. There are also many violent and disturbing things shown in the pagan myths. These are different because "no moral charge attaches to the
representation of these cruelties." So in that case, suffering is being acknowledged, but only to see if you can bare to look at it.
Sontag points out that it is much different to have a piece of art which shows a made up cruelty as apposed to a photograph which shows the close up of an actual person in the middle of a painful event. She says, "perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it." She is saying that unless we have a way to stop the suffering, our looking at it has no purpose except to satisfy some part of human nature, which makes us interested and unable to look away from horror. This strange need is not a new thing, since this focus on violence went all the way back to Christian and pagan art.
In war, photography and art again serve the purpose of acknowledging and sometimes protesting suffering. In the First World War cameras were used for military intelligence, to capture an event. "The caption of a photograph is traditionally neutral informative: a date, a place, names." A photograph is supposed to just record what happened and not takes sides. However, "it is always the image that someone chose; to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude." So the photograph is supposed to be neutral, but the photographer is still deciding what details to focus on. The caption has just facts on it, because supposedly that is what the photograph is recording. While it is true that photographs cannot explain everything themselves, they do serve as visual aids to, what otherwise be, a pallid world.
Goya was an artist who made etchings called The Disasters Of War. These etchings showed the horrible things that were done by Napoleon's soldiers. They...