02 Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag, Chapter 04

_To catch a death actually happening and embalm it for all time is something only cameras can do, and pictures taken by photographers out in the field of the moment of (or just before) death are among the most celebrated and often reproduced of war photographs.1

… this very first sentence arrests me… the truth of it… the kind of picture we can be so certain isn’t staged, images from Vietnam, napalm child, man being shot in the head, among the most noted, notorious?… i read on and the man shot in the head photo was staged in a fashion, execution carried out as theater for the press corps… this moment in time, reverberating down through the ages by photograph… there is a Woody Allen movie in which the image features as wall decoration in the dining room of a luxury apartment… the idea that someone would live with such an image all day every day means that we can become indifferent over time… was that the message?…

… “More upsetting” Sontag goes on to write, is a collection of photographs made by the Khmer Rouge of people condemned to die moments before they are executed… the condemned had committed the crimes of being “intellectuals” or “counter-revolutionaries”… i think about the precarious situation our country finds itself in where one wrong turn, one failure to stand up to the creep of authoritarianism could bring similar atrocities within our borders…

… because of the power of still and moving images, since the Vietnam war, such imagery has been tightly managed by the military with the news media as a kind of accomplice…

American television viewers weren’t allowed to see footage acquired by NBC (which the network then declined to run) of what that superiority could wreak: the fate of thousands of Iraqi conscripts who, having fled Kuwait City at the end of the war, on February 27, were carpet bombed with explosives, napalm, radioactive DU (depleted uranium) rounds, and cluster bombs as they headed north, in convoys and on foot, on the road to Basra, Iraq—a slaughter notoriously described by one American officer as a “turkey shoot.”2

… how is it i was not aware of this?… was it reported at all?… and how is it we are using radioactive rounds (we needed a use for depleted uranium?)… i do remember the slick presentation of the Gulf War, operation Shock and Awe, Desert Storm… neatly packaged for presentation on the evening news… go team!, may our victories be ever more glorious… there is a Star Trek episode in which war has been sanitized of bloody consequence, attacks are computer simulated and the computers determine who reports to the vaporization machines to take their place among the dead… no muss, no fuss, no rebellious population to stop the fighting…

… Sontag notes that the lens which creates the record is the same as the lens that surveils and targets… the actions of doing each belong in the same category of aggression… it seems to me that the increasing resistance people have to being photographed in public is a reaction to this aggression… it is also interesting that the new capture format, smart phones, is much less aggressive in appearance and, consequently, more successful in its aggression… additionally, this is what has changed, with cameras in everyone’s hands, government censorship of photographs and videos is much more difficult, there is abundant footage these days of the killing of black men by police…

… about media self censorship…

This novel insistence on good taste in a culture saturated with commercial incentives to lower standards of taste may be puzzling. But it makes sense if understood as obscuring a host of concerns and anxieties about public order and public morale that cannot be named, as well as pointing to the inability otherwise to formulate or defend traditional conventions of how to mourn. What can be shown, what should not be shown—few issues arouse more public clamor.3

…to be continued…


  1. Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others (p. 59). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition. [return]
  2. Ibid. [return]
  3. Ibid. [return]