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Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag

By Lorena O'Neil

SourceSophie Bassouls/Corbis


As cell phone cameras proliferate, so do multiple images of violence from around the globe – but is it morally corrupt to look at these pictures and videos?

By Lorena O'Neil

Should we be able to watch a woman be beheaded on Facebook alongside our friends’ status updates about their brilliant Halloween costume ideas? Is it right for us to click through images of the Kenyan mall shooting, or the Syrian chemical attack, while drinking our morning coffee?

As cell phone cameras become more commonplace and digital news sites and social media become more prominent, the images we look at every day change. We have moved away from the no-caskets-allowed days of the Iraq War toward the use of graphic images in mainstream news, although the latter still causes an outcry and ethical debates about whether we should blur identities, whether the photos should have been taken at all, whether the gruesome elements should be censored. But what does it say about ourselves that we look at these pictures and video?

Ever since cameras were invented in 1839, photography has kept company with death.

Let’s look to Susan Sontag for advice.

Sontag, who died in 2004, was a writer and literary critic who also wrote extensively about photography and the media. One of her non-fiction books, Regarding the Pain of Others, explores what it means to look upon images of war and suffering. The ethical dilemmas in her book, published in 2003, are still relevant a decade later.

Regarding Sontag’s own pain

Her longterm partner Annie Leibovitz famously photographed the writer as she was dying of blood cancer.

“Ever since cameras were invented in 1839, photography has kept company with death,” she points out. In Regarding, Sontag oscillates between whether it is or is not morally corrupt to look at images of other people’s suffering, citing the “tele-intimacy” that occurred when Americans saw disaster broadcast on their screens during the Vietnam War. “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.”

When we are oversaturated with violent images from the news media, video games and action movies, Sontag argues, our reactions dull. In the past, survivors of a catastrophe might have said the surreal horror they faced “felt like a dream,” she says. Today’s survivors say, “It felt like a movie.” Sontag questions whether we can really understand anything by looking at one picture without the proper context; she writes about the interpersonal, human understanding that is lost when we remember not a tragic event itself, but the photo of that event.

And yet, Sontag argues, photography also has a potential for humane influence. Photographs can draw attention to mass suffering and elicit an emotional response, which may lead to action. Images can remind us of the horrific acts “human beings are capable of doing – may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously.” It’s a difficult reminder, but for Sontag the fact that, more often than not, we cannot do anything to help the people in the photo, is important. ”If we could do something about what the images show, we might not care as much about these issues,” she writes.

All that Sontag asks is that we not only look at an image of suffering and think about the pain in the photo, but that we also think about what it signifies about us that we are looking at that image. Don’t just feel sympathy, she implores, because if one feels sympathy, one often also feels innocent. Acknowledge how we are connected to the pain of others, and in some cases, how we are complicit. Recognize how much easier it is to look at photos and videos of violence abroad, of violence done to people different than us. How stirred were we when images of the Boston Massacre flooded our daily screens, filled with visual cues echoing scenes where atrocities like this occur regularly? 

Don’t just feel sympathy, she implores, because if one feels sympathy one often also feels innocent. 

Sontag wants us to engage in a thoughtful debate, be it with others or just ourselves, about pain and violence and war, and our inability to understand something we have not experienced.

So should we look at these pictures? Are we voyeuristic if we do so? Or does the act of looking allow us to bond with others in a way we wouldn’t otherwise? We don’t have a clear answer for you, and we think Sontag would be okay with that.

As she said, “There’s nothing wrong with standing back and thinking. To paraphrase several sages: nobody can think and hit someone at the same time.”

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