02 Regarding the Suffering of Others, Chapter 9, Susan Sontag

Space reserved for being serious is hard to come by in a modern society, whose chief model of a public space is the mega-store (which may also be an airport or a museum).1

… in a secular society, particularly a capitalist one, all public space is for the dissemination of goods, services and corporate/state propaganda… there is little sacred space… we are left to cobble together whatever sacredness of space we can in our own homes and find it in nature…

… Sontag has a point, what do we do with imagery that should have a sacred setting for interaction?… how do we facilitate a reverential response when setting is so much a part of that response?… Sontag posits that books may be a more appropriate spot for images demanding reverential respect, in that the book is a one on one experience…

 IS THERE AN ANTIDOTE to the perennial seductiveness of war? And is this a question a woman is more likely to pose than a man? (Probably yes.)2

… one wonders if it is probable that there is an antidote and yes, a woman is more likely to ask the question… or, if probably yes applies to both?… punctuation suggests the latter, situation suggests the former… i used to be sure about the woman part, less so now… i think women ask the question as long as they have not gained the power to be war makers… as they acquire this power, it seems less clear that they will do something different with it…

… Sontag discusses Jeff Wall’s Dead Troops Talk (A Vision After an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter of 1986),

© Jeff Wall

… and i think to myself, there, there is the difference, between me and some photographers, my subject is the mundane everyday, not historical tableaux, what every day is made of… not significant statements to be fully made in one image, twitter bursts, Facebook posts, etc…

… well, there i am, finished with Regarding the Pain of Others…


  1. Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others (p. 119). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition. [return]
  2. Ibid. [return]

02 Regarding the Pain of Others, Chapter 8, Susan Sontag

… on figuring out that human depravity is a base condition…

Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.1

… innocence is abominable after a certain age… we need to know what is possible… we need to fear a Nazi Germany type white supremacy in this country because we know what happened in Nazi Germany… we need to fear the atrocious and atrocities because we know these things are abundant in the world… i wonder if one day in my lifetime i will bare direct witness to unimaginable human suffering, succumb to that suffering myself… cosmic chaos is banging on the door…

If the goal is having some space in which to live one’s own life, then it is desirable that the account of specific injustices dissolve into a more general understanding that human beings everywhere do terrible things to one another.2

… and this is what H and i have had all of our lives, some space in which to live our lives, aren’t we fortunate?… a modern life, Sontag tells us, seeks our attention in a myriad of ways, mostly, i think, to sell us something… Sontag tells us its ok to spectate, that spectating is a natural human condition… perhaps we will learn what to avoid…


  1. Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others (p. 114). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition. [return]
  2. Ibid. [return]

03 Regarding the Pain of Others, Chapter 7, Susan Sontag

… Sontag opens with two ideas…

… imagery preferred by the media direct public attention… the reason one needs to claim the news cycle… the reason 45 was so effective at controlling the narrative, though he did so with tweets, perhaps the snapshots of writing… as visual as pictures?…

… the world is so saturated with images that all imagery has a diminishing effect… it becomes important to note what we linger over in this context, we are offered so much eye candy, which we speed through until attention is arrested… this is what makes an image decisive, it arrests attention… but, not for long…

In the more radical—cynical—spin on this critique, there is nothing to defend: the vast maw of modernity has chewed up reality and spat the whole mess out as images. According to a highly influential analysis, we live in a “society of spectacle.” Each situation has to be turned into a spectacle to be real—that is, interesting—to us. People themselves aspire to become images: celebrities. Reality has abdicated. There are only representations: media.1

… we live in a society of spectacle and we all compete to be the spectacle everyone wants to see… there is no room for an appreciation of the ordinary, unless it is a cute cat, or dog… these are the proxies for our inadequacy as social media stars… we devote pages to our animal celebrities, in lieu of having our own… every day life is boring…

… the most interesting part of Sontag’s critique of media driven image ubiquity is that the news is entertainment for those who live in rich societies with little to fear of the kind of violence found in other parts of the world… something, though, has changed, the compelling imagery no longer comes exclusively from professional journalists, the compelling imagery comes from citizens who always have cameras with them… much is made of the filming of George Floyd’s murder by a teenage girl…


  1. Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others (p. 109). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition. [return]

02 Regarding the Pain of Others, Chapter 6 Susan Sontag

All images that display the violation of an attractive body are, to a certain degree, pornographic. But images of the repulsive can also allure. Everyone knows that what slows down highway traffic going past a horrendous car crash is not only curiosity. It is also, for many, the wish to see something gruesome. Calling such wishes “morbid” suggests a rare aberration, but the attraction to such sights is not rare, and is a perennial source of inner torment.1

… all of it, but especially that violations of an attractive body are pornographic, that is, sexual, we respond sexually… why?… we feel guilty over this, i have…

… Georges Bataille, a great theorist of the erotic… kept a photograph taken in China or a man being dismembered and flayed on his desk… he found it both ecstatic and intolerable…2

… Sontag points out the religious nature of a fascination with suffering and its elevation to the ecstatic… one endures what one endures for a higher ideal…

… Sontag notes the growing indifference, the growing entertainment value of violence in mass culture…

… we can be brought images of suffering from far away, but it is easy to turn away from them, not do what we are being asked to do, because we are warm and safe and, at the end of the day, we are mostly impotent to help, what part of our resources we are willing to devote to assuaging cruelty, our consciences, is limited for most of us…

So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence.(Ibid)

… and…

To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may—in ways we might prefer not to imagine—be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.3


  1. Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others (pp. 95-96). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition. [return]
  2. Ibid. [return]
  3. Ibid. [return]

04 Regarding the Pain of Others, Chapter 5, Susan Sontag

… Sontag sums up the chapter by reminding us the presentation of history is selective… we have reached a moment in which a large number of our citizens are ready to look at the horrors of slavery and its aftermath, but what about the many other atrocities committed in our name by our government?…

A museum devoted to the history of America’s wars that included the vicious war the United States fought against guerrillas in the Philippines from 1899 to 1902 (expertly excoriated by Mark Twain), and that fairly presented the arguments for and against using the atomic bomb in 1945 on the Japanese cities, with photographic evidence that showed what those weapons did, would be regarded—now more than ever—as a most unpatriotic endeavor.1


  1. Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others (p. 94). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition. [return]

03 Regarding the Pain of Others, Chapter 5, Susan Sontag

… Sontag talks about the “usefulness” of images of atrocities exhibited long after the atrocious can be punished for being atrocious… the example is a set of photographs of lynchings in the south, taken as souvenirs… why show them in the year 2000 when they were made 1890-1930?… what are we supposed to do with the information, with the consciousness they raise?…

The pictures were taken as souvenirs and made, some of them, into postcards; more than a few show grinning spectators, good churchgoing citizens as most of them had to be, posing for a camera with the backdrop of a naked, charred, mutilated body hanging from a tree. The display of these pictures makes us spectators, too.1

… will black and brown people be treated better now because we see these images now?, will we recognize just what brutes we are?, i am guessing that most who saw the exhibit or the book, Without Sanctuary, think of themselves as brutes, yet…

It was further argued that submitting to the ordeal should help us understand such atrocities not as the acts of “barbarians” but as the reflection of a belief system, racism, that by defining one people as less human than another legitimates torture and murder. But maybe they were barbarians. Maybe this is what most barbarians look like. (They look like everybody else.)2

… this is what gives me pause at our present moment in history, brutes are on the move, and they are us…


  1. Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others (p. 91). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition. [return]
  2. . [return]

02 Regarding the Pain of Others, Chapter 5, Susan Sontag

… Sontag talking about the limited ability of a photograph to tell a story, to deliver understanding… they can shock, they can be pivotal moments for public opinion, but they don’t say much about the moments leading up to the moment in question… they define, but don’t explain… words, she tells us, explain…

03 Regarding the Pain of Others, Chapter 5, Susan Sontag

Central to modern expectations, and modern ethical feeling, is the conviction that war is an aberration, if an unstoppable one. That peace is the norm, if an unattainable one. This, of course, is not the way war has been regarded throughout history. War has been the norm and peace the exception.1

… my entire life has been spent in a land that has been largely free of war… i am white, male, middle class, in my 60’s… relative peace and calm has been a luxury throughout my life… military conscription ended when i was old enough, there has been no war since that demanded such conscription… because i am white, the violence of the justice system does not impact me… it is impossible for me to truly comprehend the privilege i have been graced with…

That a gory battlescape could be beautiful—in the sublime or awesome or tragic register of the beautiful—is a commonplace about images of war made by artists. The idea does not sit well when applied to images taken by cameras: to find beauty in war photographs seems heartless. But the landscape of devastation is still a landscape. There is beauty in ruins.2

… people should not detach themselves from their feelings about misfortune and tragedy, theirs or others… the universe is indifferent to it, but people are not always… the closer to home, the more certain it is they won’t be… where is one to find meaning in a universe that churns on, constructing, deconstructing, building up, grinding down… is the best stance one of detachment?… if it is, then what of the human capacity to feel, love, empathize… there is a great emphasis being placed on empathy these days, it is a hopeful stance, one that suggests that we can all just get along… and yet, the evidence is solid in the direction of no, we can’t…

… Sontag talks about photographs taken among the ruins of the trade towers… what is beauty?… does it exist in devastation and death?… the discussion is about the confused powers of photography, the power to document, the power to make most anything beautiful, the position of witness to the truths of the cosmos, sublime and detestable both…

… as example of raising misfortune to artistic aesthetic heights, which crosses over from documentation to exploitation, Sontag offers Sebastião Salgado, who photographs wild animals on the brink of extinction, humans engaged in barely endurable labor that pays a pittance, or roaming the world restively looking for a place to live out their lives with decent prospects for the privilege i have… she notes that his pictures are exhibited in high end galleries and purchased by people with far more means than i have… they are noble savage sorts of photographs… the savage is beautiful so long as they remain the savage… she note also that the people he photographs never have a name… or at least, he hasn’t troubled himself with finding out what it is and identifying them…

 PHOTOGRAPHS OBJECTIFY: they turn an event or a person into something that can be possessed. And photographs are a species of alchemy, for all that they are prized as a transparent account of reality.3

… photographic fact of life… Sontag talks of the current trend to show the shockingly ugly, to provoke emotion, action, or simply catapult the creator into notoriety… this latter is the operating motive of so much these days, to be noticed at all one has to shock… a shock doctrine… as i write this i know i have heard it before and look it up, the title of a book by Naomi Klein where she describes it as the deliberate exploitation of national calamity to put through dubious policies while the people are distracted… hmmm…

All memory is individual, unreproducible—it dies with each person. What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened, with the pictures that lock the story in our minds. Ideologies create substantiating archives of images, representative images, which encapsulate common ideas of significance and trigger predictable thoughts, feelings.4

… an extremely important point…

… Sontag discusses the significance to a people of collecting their history and enshrining it in an institutional setting so they can remember the tragic past and celebrate survival in the present… Sontag asks why there is no museum of the sufferings of African Americans (at the time of writing, there are now a number that are in planning or opened as of the writing of this Atlantic article in 2016)…


  1. Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others (p. 74). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition. [return]
  2. Ibid. [return]
  3. Ibid. [return]
  4. Ibid. [return]

02 Regarding the Pain of Others, Chapter 4, Susan Sontag

… this quote is highlighted 273 times in my Kindle edition book…

The more remote or exotic the place, the more likely we are to have full frontal views of the dead and dying.1

… Sontag concludes the chapter discussing the racist nature of photographs of the dead and dying in African and Asian countries… a collective fascination with the less fortunate as a means to confirm the good fortune of not living in one of “those” countries… human beings are very good at othering… one questions the adaptive advantage, isn’t there something wrong with nature’s programming here?… is getting one’s genes into the next generation so important?… at this point i confront the reality that, as far as i know, i have not projected my genes into the next generation, a fact that at times leaves me feeling a failure…


  1. Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others (p. 70). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition. [return]

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]

02 Regarding the Pain of Others, Chapter 3, Susan Sontag

… The Dragon Devouring the Companions of Cadmus, Hendrick Goltzius (1588)…

The Dragon Devouring the Companions of Cadmus, 1588, Hendrick Gotzius

Titian, The Flaying of Marsyas

… Sontag is making the point that photographs differ from paintings in that they are not, in most cases, renderings of what a we imagine a horror to be, they are the horror itself once removed…

But there is shame as well as shock in looking at the close-up of a real horror. 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—say, the surgeons at the military hospital where the photograph was taken—or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.1

… Goya, Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War), eighty-three etchings depicting the brutality of Napoleon’s army when invading Spain in 1808 to put down the Spanish rebellion in 1808…

Grande hazaña! Con muertos! (A heroic feat! With dead men!).

… why must there be brutality for the defeated?, to be thoroughly humiliated?, why do human beings work this way?…

… Sontag makes a point of the non-judgmental captioning of documentary photographs vs. the captions of Goya’s etchings which are very judgmental…

… a painting (sculpture, music score, etc.) is the creation of the artist and its first standard of relevance is the truth of its attribution… a (documentary) photograph’s first standard of reference is the truth of its contents… though authorship can become important when a photograph becomes collectible…

War was and still is the most irresistible—and picturesque—news. (Along with that invaluable substitute for war, international sports.2

… that sporting contests are wars for peacetime is an extremely interesting point, and explains the way news presentation makes war seem little more than sporting contest, at least in the beginning… i remember the broadcast of Operation Desert Storm… the same applies to political contests, with contests for presidency presented in a similar sporting event format… i have spoken of this before…

… The Valley of the Shadow of Death, Roger Fenton… a famous photograph that i have seen in a book somewhere, maybe Sontag’s book, On Photography…

Valley of the Shadow of Death

Valley of the Shadow of Death, with no cannonballs on the road

… it appears that many iconic photographs of conflict were staged…

We want the photographer to be a spy in the house of love and of death, and those being photographed to be unaware of the camera, “off guard.” No sophisticated sense of what photography is or can be will ever weaken the satisfactions of a picture of an unexpected event seized in mid-action by an alert photographer.3

Only starting with the Vietnam War is it virtually certain that none of the best-known photographs were setups.4

Phan Thi Kim Phuc

June 8, 1972: Kim Phúc, center left, running down a road naked near Trảng Bàng after a South Vietnam Air Force napalm attack (Nick Ut / The Associated Press)

After snapping the photograph, Ut took Kim Phúc and the other injured children to Barsky Hospital in Saigon, where it was determined that her burns were so severe that she probably would not survive. After a 14-month hospital stay and 17 surgical procedures including skin transplantations, she was able to return home. A number of the early operations were performed by Finnish plastic surgeon Aarne Rintala. It was only after treatment at a renowned special clinic in Ludwigshafen, West Germany, in 1982, that Kim Phúc was able to properly move again.5


  1. Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others (p. 42). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition. [return]
  2. Ibid. [return]
  3. Ibid. [return]
  4. Ibid. [return]
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phan_Thi_Kim_Phuc [return]