How images fail to convey war’s horror

Neal Ascherson is the author of numerous books, including "Black Sea," "The King Incorporated: Leopold the Second and the Congo" and "Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland."

War is coming toward us, once again. How to prevent it, when the warriors have slammed shut their minds like visors, is becoming an empty question. How it will be fought is more important: How much blood, whose blood? But there is a third question: How will it be remembered? And this question has an answer. People all over the world, though possibly not in Iraq, will remember it by a photograph, by one single-image frame. We can know that already, even though we do not know who the photographer will be or what will be the subject.

The Gulf War of 1991 usually prompts one image: not liberated Kuwait or burning oil-wells, but the calcined mask of what had been an Iraqi soldier, caught in his truck in the great “turkey-shoot” on the Basra Road. The Holocaust is the (Nazi) photograph of the small boy in a cloth cap, with his hands up. The Spanish Civil War is Robert Capa’s falling soldier. As Susan Sontag explains in her new book, this is how people in modern times remember: “War-making and picture-taking are congruent activities.” And she quotes Ernst Junger, “aesthete of war,” on the deep connection between shooting a picture and shooting a man or woman. “It is the same intelligence [he wrote]whose weapons of annihilation can locate the enemy to the exact second and meter that labors to preserve the great historical event in fine detail.” He did not make that remark in the Gulf in 2003, surrounded by smart missiles and network TV teams, but in Germany in 1930.

Susan Sontag’s “On Photography” was published in 1977. It became, almost instantly, a bible. To this day, it remains a prescribed textbook in almost every serious photography course in the world, and a venerated reference work for media students and all who try to understand the force of imagery. But its readers are not just the university young, or ambitious intellectuals constructing new theories about reality as spectacle. 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 (“embedding” journalists is the military word for the attempt to control what the world will be allowed to read and see of it), she has returned to the subject in “Regarding the Pain of Others.” Much has happened in the 25-year interval, and some things have changed. Susan Sontag, for example, has changed her mind. During that interval, she spent time in Sarajevo under siege, and that experience seems to have enriched her thinking in two ways.

It has hardened her belief in “reality.” She is more impatient with the post-modern insistence that only the spectacle is real -- that “there are only representations: media.” She rejects the “distinguished French day-trippers to Sarajevo” who announced that the war would be won not on the ground but in the media. They posed as sophisticates. But “to speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world ... it is absurd to generalize about the ability to respond to the sufferings of others on the basis of the mind-set of those consumers of news who know nothing at first hand about war and massive injustice and terror.”


Secondly, Sontag has revised some of her earlier pessimism about popular responses. In “On Photography,” she deplored the numbing, diminishing effect of repeated exposure to images of horror. Today she is more discriminating. “As much as they create sympathy, I wrote, photographs shrivel sympathy. Is this true? I thought it was when I wrote it. I ‘m not so sure now. What is the evidence ... ?” She thinks today that this effect is mainly confined to the impact of television, whose images “are, by definition, images of which, sooner or later, one tires.” The whole point of television is that it is designed to satiate and exhaust the viewer; “it is normal to switch channels; to become restless, bored.” Her faith in the still photograph, in contrast, revives, and she remarks, brilliantly, that “when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite. Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image.”

As Sontag says, everyone carries around a mental library of those single images. “This remembering through photographs eclipses other forms of understanding, and remembering.... To remember is, more and more, not to recall a story but to be able to call up a picture.” But she warns that those single images are notoriously unreliable when they are invoked as pieces of unambiguous truth. Some are faked or posed; some are rearrangements of evidence. Doubt still hangs over Capa’s famous Republican soldier falling dead on a Spanish battlefield, while Roger Fenton in the Crimean War and Mathew Brady’s team in the American Civil War cheerfully scattered extra cannon-balls or lugged corpses into more striking attitudes. (Brady said grandly that “The Camera Is The Eye of History,” but we know enough about subjectivity today to define history as a mythopoeic old lady with a squint). Sontag gives many other examples of fiddling with the “undeniable” truth of the photograph and asks shrewdly why the discovery of faking is so curiously hurtful to the consumer (Robert Doisneau’s kissing lovers in Paris -- it just mustn’t be true that they were paid to pose!). A bit loftily, she concludes that “with time, many staged photographs turn back into historical evidence, albeit of an impure kind -- like most historical evidence.” But she concludes that staging ended with the Vietnam War, for the simple reason that there were always too many other photographers around.

The easy assumption is that a given terrible image can carry only one message. It is false. Sontag begins her book with a letter by Virginia Woolf, who had received from Spain an album of appalling pictures showing what bombing can do to civilians. Woolf assumes that these images can only “say” that war is dreadful and must be abolished, but Sontag points out that they could equally well be understood as evidence that war -- that particular war -- was necessary and must be fought to the finish. And no doubt Franco’s propagandists could have used them to prove that their air power was irresistible and that the Republic’s leaders should surrender.

Pictures, after all, do not speak for themselves. Captions can often do the talking. Susan Sontag respects Ernst Friedrich, the German antiwar campaigner in the 1920s, who published a book of horrific images -- corpses, obliterating facial wounds -- with a preaching caption in four languages attached to each photograph. Goya did much the same in his “Disasters of War,” writing under the etchings “One can’t look” or “This is the Worst!” or just “Why?” But, for reasons not easy to follow, Sontag takes issue with the interpretation laid on Ron Haviv’s famous 1992 photograph from Bijeljina in Bosnia, showing a uniformed man kicking a prostrate woman in the head. She challenges the comment by John Kifner of the New York Times: " ... a Serb militiaman casually kicking a dying Muslim woman in the head. It tells you everything you need to know.” Sontag objects that the picture by itself, without a context of external evidence, tells you none of those details. It merely suggests that “war is hell, and that graceful young men with guns are capable of kicking overweight older women lying helpless....” She is trying to make the point, fair as a generalization, that while narratives make us understand, “photographs do something else. They haunt us.” But it’s an awkward example to choose, and there is no reason to doubt that Kifner was right about those details.

There has always been reluctance to show the identifiable faces of the dead in war photographs -- as long as they are “our” dead. It was a taboo which Brady himself broke in 1862 with an exhibition of images of the dead at Antietam, but on the whole it still holds although -- as Sontag writes -- “this is a dignity not thought necessary to accord to others.” The dead and dying of Africa in famines or genocidal wars are shown full-face and usually anonymously. This encourages “belief in the inevitability of tragedy in the benighted or backward -- that is, poor -- parts of the world.” Sontag suggests that the visual treatment of these victims “inherits the age-old practice of exhibiting exotic -- that is, colonized -- human beings ... displayed like zoo animals in ‘ethnological’ exhibitions.”

She goes on to take an unforgiving look at the work of Sebastiao Salgado, “a photographer who specializes in world misery.” Her quarrel is not so much with his talent as with “the sanctimonious Family of Man-style rhetoric that feathers Salgado’s exhibitions and books.” But the deeper problem here, for her, is in the pictures’ “focus on the powerless, reduced to their powerlessness. It is significant that the powerless are not named in the captions. A portrait that declines to name its subject becomes complicit, if inadvertently, in the cult of celebrity ....” Sontag objects that this globalizing of suffering makes it seem “too vast, too irrevocable, too epic to be much changed by any local, political intervention. With a subject conceived on this scale, compassion can only flounder -- and make abstract, and mislead.”

In the quarter-century that separates Sontag’s two books about photography, public sensibility to images of suffering has developed strikingly. One new concern, which influences most photographers today, is about the supposed gap between art and authenticity. If the images of horror are too “beautiful,” how can they at the same time be “real”? Some photographs of the World Trade Center ruins were indeed beautiful, but “the most people dared say was that the photographs were ‘surreal,’ a hectic euphemism behind which the disgraced notion of beauty cowered.” How could a picture be a document, if its maker looked on an awful scene aesthetically? The dilemma is fallacious, but all newspaper readers can recognize the trend among gifted and professional camera-people to make their images of war and misery seem “rough” and amateurish.

A second concern is anxiety about voyeurism. Should we be looking at this? (For photographers, the question is how one human being can flash on another’s agony and then race off to the next scene, a guilt that dates back to the moment when the Leica and its technical progeny allowed men and women with cameras to snatch images in seconds). How do we distinguish the presumably noble wish to face the world’s calamities from the presumably ignoble prurience which gets off on pictures of carnage and bodies in pain?

Here Sontag is in top form: firing devastating questions and providing no answers for shelter. She hands us no morality meter, designed to scan a picture and flash up “necessary experience” in green or “atrocity-porn” in red. Instead, she quotes Plato -- the tale of Leontius reluctantly feasting his eyes on executed criminals -- to show that “the attraction of mutilated bodies” has always been recognized, not least in the obsession of Christian art with naked bodies in pain. Only in the 17th century are depictions of atrocity hitched to the notion that war is cruel and should be prevented. But “most depictions of tormented, mutilated bodies do arouse a prurient interest.... All images that display the violation of an attractive body are, to a certain degree, pornographic.” (Sontag exonerates Goya, whose brutalized victims are, like their torturers and violators, “heavy, and thickly clothed”).

So when does looking at images of slaughter or sadism cease to be “morbid” and become something like a duty, a civic obligation? Sontag’s underlying argument is that there can be no dividing line, however frail, which fences off the potential of such images for foul excitement. But she offers two examples in which politics and time can at least affect the moral balance. One is My Lai. Ron Haeberle’s pictures of that 1968 massacre, which “became important in bolstering the indignation at this war which was far from inevitable, far from intractable and could have been stopped much sooner.” There was something to be done about them, in other words. But that did not apply to the New York exhibition three years ago which showed souvenir photographs of small-town lynchings between the 1890s and the 1930s. “Is looking at such pictures really necessary, given that these horrors lie in a past remote enough to be beyond punishment?” Some people argued (and if Sontag was one of them, she is not prepared to spoil the tension of the argument by saying so) that the exhibition helped its viewers to understand lynching as the reflection of a belief system -- racism -- which “by defining one people as less human than another legitimates torture and murder.” But why should Americans feel that they have some sort of duty to look at lynching images and yet feel that is morbid to inspect pictures of dead children at Hiroshima? It is a matter of whom Americans wish to blame or, “more precisely, whom do we believe we have the right to blame?”

Again and again, Sontag returns to the point which she made about the My Lai images. Pictures of the suffering of others provoke an instant wish to intervene, to rescue victims or stop a conflict. But then, often enough, follows frustration: the sense that there is nothing which the looker can do. Sometimes there really is nothing; victims in the deeper past, for instance, are beyond rescue. But that sense can also be false, a manipulation. Sontag, who has kept her indomitable faith in politics, or at least in the power of popular action, detests the way in which the suggestion of impotence is inserted to anaesthetize public outrage. And she identifies the irrational loop of feeling in which inability to respond to the message of suffering leads to disgust with the message itself -- and its messengers. “Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.... If one feels that there is nothing ‘we’ can do -- but who is that ‘we’? -- and nothing ‘they’ can do either -- and who are ‘they’? -- then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.” Subjected to the flow of heart-rending photographs and television pictures from Bosnia, and simultaneously to the rhetoric of statesmen who insisted that “Balkan savagery” was beyond treatment, good-hearted people grew exasperated with the media “voyeurs” who kept the images coming.

But Sontag, in any case, does not rate sympathy much higher than apathy. “The imaginary proximity to the suffering inflicted on others that is granted by images suggests a link between the faraway sufferers ... and the privileged viewer that is simply untrue, that is yet one more mystification of our real relations to power. So far as we feel sympathy, we feel that we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence.”

A non-American reader must have problems with that passage. Sontag argues in a style that presumes a sort of collective imperial guilt for most horrors in the contemporary world. She can seem to say, as in those sentences, that the people of a rich and privileged nation must first recognize their complicity in the causes of distant suffering before they can hope to relieve the sufferers; as long as you feel innocent, you stay impotent. This Calvinistic moral demand is perhaps specific to radical political intellectuals in the United States. European societies find it easier to turn sympathy, or “imaginary proximity to suffering,” into positive proximity and action. Governments in Europe showed cowardice and hypocrisy over Bosnia, but young people in the thousands saw the photographs, crammed food and drugs into rucksacks, and headed south. They felt sympathy; they did not bother to deny the complicity of the rich in the torments of the poor; they were empowered -- not paralyzed -- by media images of agony.

And the war against Iraq? Susan Sontag does not mention it directly. She does not have to. We cannot yet know which images are going to freeze-frame this conflict in popular memory, but this wise and somber book warns that some older styles of antiwar photography may be powerless this time. “In the current political mood, the friendliest to the military in decades, the pictures of wretched hollow-eyed GIs that once seemed subversive of militarism and imperialism may seem inspirational. Their revised subject: ordinary American young men doing their unpleasant, ennobling duty.”

And the pictures of dead soldiers, dead women and children? In those rare moments when a people is in passionate revolt against a war, photographs can help powerfully. But Sontag’s closing words acknowledge that there are realities which no picture can convey. “We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand, can’t imagine. That’s what every soldier, and every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire and has had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby, stubbornly feels. And they are right.”