Regarding the Pain of Others

Susan Sontag




Trade Paperback

144 Pages



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National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee
A New York Times Notable Book
A Los Angeles Times Best Book
A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book

One of the distinguishing features of modern life is that it supplies countless opportunities for regarding (at a distance, through the medium of photography) horrors taking place throughout the world. Images of atrocities have become, via the little screens of the television and the computer, something of a commonplace. But are viewers inured—or incited—to violence by the depiction of cruelty? Is the viewer's perception of reality eroded by the daily barrage of such images? What does it mean to care about the sufferings of people in faraway zones of conflict?

Susan Sontag's now classic book On Photography defined the terms of this debate twenty-five years ago. Her new book is a profound rethinking of the intersection of "news," art, and understanding in the contemporary depiction of war and disaster. She makes a fresh appraisal of the arguments about how pictures can inspire dissent, foster violence, or create apathy, evoking a long history of the representation of the pain of others—from Goya's The Disasters of War to photographic documents of the American Civil War, lynchings of blacks in the South, the First World War, the Spanish Civil War, the Nazi death camps, and contemporary images from Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Israel, and Palestine, and New York City on September 11, 2001.

This is also a book about how war itself is waged (and understood) in our time, replete with vivid historical examples and a variety of arguments advanced from some unexpected literary sources. Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, Edmund Burke, Wordsworth, Baudelaire, and Virginia Woolf all figure in this passionate reflection in the modern understanding of violence and atrocity. It includes as well a stinging attack on the provincialism of media pundits who denigrate the reality of war, and a political understanding of conflict, with glib talk about a new, worldwide "society of spectacle." Just as On Photography challenged how we understand the very condition of being modern, Regarding the Pain of Others will alter our thinking not only about the uses and meaning of images, but about the nature of war, the limits of sympathy, and the obligations of conscience.


Praise for Regarding the Pain of Others

"Sontag reappraises many of the opinions she laid out in her well known 1977 book On Photography. That earlier volume gave us a searing indictment of photography, arguing that it limits 'experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir' . . . [Regarding the Pain of Others] focuses on how we look at photographs of calamities and the moral implications of such observation . . . A nuanced [and] revisionist coda of sorts to On Photography . . . Sontag is to be commended for acknowledging how her thinking has changed over the years."—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"Sontag's On Photography was published in 1977. It became, almost instantly, a bible . . . Its readers are not just the university young [but also] the men and women at the sharp end—those you find edging up bullet-scarred streets with Nikons dangling around their flak jackets have read Sontag too. They ask themselves constantly why they are doing the work they do, and to whom they are doing it, and whether anyone cares whether they do it or not. If any one person provided the words for that self-questioning, it was Susan Sontag. She wrote that book when the images of Vietnam were still fresh. Now, as the photographers line up for accreditation to yet another war, she has returned to the subject . . . We cannot yet know which images are going to freeze-frame [the Iraq] conflict in popular memory, but this wise and somber book warns that some older styles of antiwar photography may be powerless this time . . . Sontag's closing words acknowledge that there are realities which no picture can convey."—Neal Ascherson, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"[Sontag] is at ease in the history of photography and in the history of painting, in the analysis of history and in the analysis of the media, and she never slides into pedantry. Nor does she seek to force her ideas upon us, but rather to make us reflect, with some melancholy, upon a range of troublesome topics." —Tzvetan Todorov, The New Republic

"Susan Sontag's extraordinary new book expands on her landmark 1977 work, On Photography. Like that earlier book, Regarding the Pain of Others examines the intersection of aesthetics, politics, and ethics in elegant, intelligently constructed prose. But Regarding the Pain, though slimmer than its predecessor, may strike deeper. Like the photographs it inspects, it can be absorbed a chapter at a time, attesting to its immediacy, power, and range. Sontag's insight and erudition are profound, but her fluency as a writer allows readers to engage at their own pace . . . [This is] a timely meditation on politics and ethics."—Carlo Wolff, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"Can we rely on literature or art to tell us what war is like? Here is the question underlying Regarding the Pain of Others . . . When reported in literature, such [warfare] images tell us something about war, but when captured in a photograph, Sontag argues, they run the risk of becoming the equivalent of visual sound bites. This is one of the dangerous things about photography, Sontag says. It can be so easily manipulated by ideology or by the photographer . . . A photograph from Afghanistan, Sontag keenly notes, is merely one frame of an event. What we should be asking when we see any photograph is why we are seeing this particular image [and] who allowed such an image to be published? What is this image telling me to feel? In her 1977 book, On Photography, Sontag argued that 'photographs shrivel sympathy,' but here she revisits that idea, amending it to suggest that nothing, short of being in a war, can provoke the sympathy that war requires."—John Freeman, The Denver Post

"Regarding the Pain of Others bristles with a sense of commitment—to seeing the world as it is, to worrying about the ways it is represented, even to making some gesture in the direction of changing it . . . The performance is thrilling to s24witness."—The New York Times Magazine

"Is it true then, as Sontag wrote in On Photography, that the camera is a passport that annihilates moral boundaries, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed? If there's anyone capable of answering these thorny questions, it is she. As that early book demonstrated, she is a most probing critic, one of the very best writers on photography in its history . . . Sontag is rightfully angry with certain French intellectuals fashionable in academic circles who speak of 'the death of reality' and who assure us that 'reality' is now a mere spectacle. 'It suggests, perversely, unseriously,' she writes, 'that there is no real suffering in the world.' And yet, there was a time when she was somewhat inclined toward that view, when she was tempted to say that it is images and not reality that photography makes accessible. She charged photography of doing as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it, and she was not wrong . . . Such photographs [of war] preserve, however tenuously, the mark of some person's suffering in the great mass of faceless and anonymous victims. We ought to be grateful to Susan Sontag for reminding us of this."—Charles Simic, The New York Review of Books

"Sontag is pre-eminently a critic of our culture, an essayist whose most influential work has been to interpret social phenomena. Without disseminating any narrowly focused, doctrinaire ideology, she belongs with other pioneering literary women in English and American literature such as Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Mary McCarthy, Cynthia Ozick, and Grace Paley. All of these, and others like them, have opened vistas hitherto obscured in various ways. A bold, confident, coolly attentive vision, a broad tolerance, a capacity for direct unvarnished statement characterize all. For all their skill in observation and writing, even their greater male contemporaries generally fail to give us the same worlds . . . [This book gives a] thoughtful, careful, and patient survey of photography's presentation and implicit 'interpretation' of horrors."—Morris Freedman, The Forward

"The ideas in this slim volume are thought-provoking."—Kassie Rose, The Columbus Dispatch

"Sontag's book [asks] crucial questions about the uneasy relationship that exists between photography, war, and propaganda."—Peter Wollen, The Nation

"On Photography tended to portray the camera as a kind of single-minded (yet also mindless) force unleashed on the world—leaving everything fragmented and ironic and 'interesting,' if morally meaningless. Sontag's perspective now is more complex, her sense of the photographer's role is more ambivalent, and certainly far less monolithic . . . Given the density of its historical references and the number of allusions to her earlier work, Regarding the Pain of Others invites, and rewards, more than one reading. It is a book posing serious questions—an altogether different matter than adopting the post of seriousness."—Scott McLemee, Newsday

"Regarding the Pain of Others is a fascinating exploration that complements and expands on Sontag's earlier work, On Photography. This is the Sontag we expect, admire, and even revere: critical, thoughtful, insightful, thoroughly wide-ranging in her sources and ideas, and always penetrating and disturbing."—John Hoey, Canadian Medical Association Journal

"In this clear and nuanced work, published 26 years after her landmark work On Photography, Sontag returns to an examination of the effect of visual imagery on Western culture—specifically the effect of violent imagery. Using examples across history including imagery from the American Civil War, WWI, Nazi death camps, and lynchings of black Americans in the South, and culminating with 9/11, Sontag successfully supports her argument that despite being seemingly oversaturated with violent images, viewers continue to be both drawn to and shocked and affected by them. Sontag observes, 'War was and still is the most irresistible—and picturesque—news.' What is particularly noteworthy is that the author makes her case so convincingly without reproducing any visual images in her book. Instead, she uses the works of writers and artists including Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, and Virginia Woolf to build her argument. This book is welcome and timely. Recommended [for] upper-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals."—C. Baker, Baylor University, Choice

"A fiercely challenging book . . . Immensely thought-provoking . . . This is a book that is as uncomfortable with our evasions and confusions as it is with the virtues and shortcomings of picturing violence. And it's not incidental that, as with her early book On Photography, there is not a single illustration included. Words, Sontag seems to imply, can say it all. And arguably (in her hands, at least) say it better."—Christopher Andreae, The Christian Science Monitor

"In this timely book, Sontag questions her conclusions in [On Photography], arguing now that we are indeed deeply affected by [war] photos no matter how many times we see them. With her usual sizzling way of connecting literature, art, music, and politics, Sontag illustrates the role of representation in reflecting reality by ranging over writers and artists from Virginia Woolf, Wordsworth, and Baudelaire to Plato and Leonardo da Vinci."—Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Orlando Sentinel

"As the images come out of Iraq, Sontag's plainspoken, self-questioning book furnishes meditation of a high order. At times, she seems almost afraid to reach conclusions. But her oscillating and humbled mindfulness restores photography to its place in the humanist tradition."—Lorraine Adams, The Washington Post

"Amid debates about how television and print media frame and filter information, Sontag's cautionary remarks about war photography have a welcome sobriety. They offer comfort neither to pro-war nor to anti-war readers."—Kenneth Baker, San Francisco Chronicle

"Her books illuminate without simplifying, complete without obfuscating and insist above all that to ignore what threatens us is both irresponsible and dangerous."—O magazine

i0"Sontag, one of our most perceptive and valiant thinkers, offered a seminal critique of camera-mediated images in On Photography. Now, 25 years later, photographs and video of the bloody consequences of terrorism and war routinely fill the media, and Sontag offers a fresh, meticulous, and deeply affecting dissection of the role images of suffering play in our lives. Do photographs and television footage of the injured and dead serve as 'shock therapy' or merely elicit a momentary shudder before they're forgotten? Do images of systematic violence engender compassion and antiwar sentiments or arouse hunger for revenge? Writing with electrifying clarity and conciseness, Sontag traces the evolution of the 'iconography of suffering' from paintings by Goya, to photographs of concentration camps, to the first live and in-color war coverage to rage across television screens, that of the Vietnam War, to images of the destruction of the World Trade Center taken by amateurs and professionals alike. Sontag parses the difference in our response to images of terrorism at home versus abroad, and forthrightly addresses our pornographic fascination with images of the wounded and dead. Ultimately, Sontag, scrupulous in her reasoning and exhilarating in her arguments, arrives at a paradox: although we're inundated more than ever before by stark visual evidence of the 'pain of others,' we've yet to increase our capacity to do something about it."—Donna Seaman, Booklist

"Moments of brilliance and wonder . . . [The] ever-unflappable tone will be familiar here to Sontag readers, as will be the wonderful aperçus that come along in a kind of pearls-on-a-string parade—'All memory is individual, unreproducible—it dies with each person,' for example, or 'To remember is, more and more, not to recall a story but to be able to call up a picture,' or 'Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us.' Familiar, too, is the Sontagian pleasure of watching a mind roam through fields of history and reading—as the thinker touches down one moment in Plato, at another in Leonardo or Edmund Burke, all the while keeping up knowledgeably detailed references to politics and conflict from the Crimean war up to Somalia and Bosnia."—Kirkus Reviews

"Twenty-six years after the publication of her influential collection of essays On Photography, Sontag reconsiders ideas that are 'now fast approaching the status of platitudes,' especially the view that our capacity to respond to images of war and atrocity is being dulled by 'the relentless diffusion of vulgar and appalling images' in our rapaciously media-driven culture. Sontag opens by describing Virginia Woolf's essay on the roots of war, 'Three Guineas,' in which Woolf described a set of gruesome photographs of mutilated bodies and buildings destroyed during the Spanish Civil War. Woolf wondered if there truly can be a 'we' between man and woman in matters of war. Sontag sets out to reopen and enlarge the question. 'No "we" should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people's pain,' she writes. The 'we' that Sontag has come to be much more aware of in the decades since On Photography is the world of the rich. She has come to doubt her youthful contention that repeated exposure to images of suffering necessarily shrivels sympathy, and she doubts even more the radical yet influential spin that others put on this critique—that reality itself has become a spectacle. 'To speak of reality becoming a spectacle . . . universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world.' Sontag reminds us that sincerity can turn a mere spectator into a witness, and that it is the heart rather than fancy rhetoric that can lead the mind to understanding."—Publishers Weekly



  • Susan Sontag

  • Susan Sontag was the author of numerous works of non-fiction, including the groundbreaking collection of essays Against Interpretation, and of four novels, including In America, which won the National Book Award.

  • Susan Sontag Mikhail Lemkhin