Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag has been acclaimed to be “One of America’s best known fictional writers, essayists and cultural critics” this and the last century. Born in New York City in 1933 she went on to study at philosophy at the University of Chicago only turning sixteen whilst she was there. Since that time, Sontag has gone on to accomplish many great achievements in writing both fictional and non-fictional texts as well as becoming an accomplished film-maker. As a critic she has been described as being influential, provocative and controversial.

Her novels have been described as angular and devious, but at the same time ‘ruled by special rationalism’ (Hardwick, A Susan Sontag Reader, 1982). Sontag’s first book was published in 1966 at the age of 33and was called “Against Interpretation”. The book itself it was a collection of essays which had been printed in magazines and was almost a catalyst to dismiss her from being categorised as a purely fictional writer. Since that time Sontag has written many more essays and has released a large number of books, some of them collaborations with other writers and some on her own.

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One of her most notorious publications was the book On Photography (of which I will be discussing more in detail in this essay later) which was first published in Britain in 1978. This has not been followed up by her new book on the power of the photographic image Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). Both these books examine the notion that the still image is more powerful and provocative than that of the moving picture: the very essence of this essay In this essay I will be examining and discussing the quotation from Sontag’s latest book Regarding the Pain of others to see if her statement is just in its implications.

In order to answer this question effectively I will firstly be examining the statement above to understand what Sontag is trying to express and then I shall examine some more of her work from her two books on the subject of photography to support her argument. I then intend to examine six artefacts, three video and three photographic artefacts and will attempt to examine to see how each makes me feel after viewing each one. One photographic and one video artefact will be a pair or the same event. I shall then conclude my findings.

Sontag’s quotation at the top of the page is from her new book and basically reflects a lot on what she has said in the past. Sontag is basically trying to put the point across in this quotation that by presenting an image in a particular way can either drain and image of its force or power as it were or it can add to it, The quotation goes onto remark that by using the medium of television to present images, if repeated, the audience bore and tire easily of it, a term which has later been coined is ‘compassion fatigue’.

This has been proven to be noted with crisis such as the Ethiopian famine where as people who saw the images of the starving families repeated on television again and again, soon became bored and tiresome of the images and thus the images did not effect them as much as it did say the first time they saw them (famine fatigue). This ‘compassion fatigue’ Sontag argues is caused because the repeated showing of the moving images desensitise the viewer and make them more able to watch the image without feeling the emotions that they are meant to feel over it.

The second half of the quotation identifies the reason for why this desensitisation occurs: basically because the purpose of the television is there to entertain us, not to shock us. Television can cause a short span of attention which makes reflecting on shocking images that much harder after you the audience have seen them. This raises the point that we are not callous in our actions of viewing artefacts of a shocking nature, we have just been taught to turn off from them.

Flooded with images of the sort that once used to shock and arouse indignation, we are losing the capacity to react. Compassion, stretched to its limits, is going numb. So runs the familiar diagnosis” (Sontag, 2003: 108) In the above quotation (from the same book as the title) Sontag reinforces this claim that by being ‘flooded’ with images repeatedly; we are actually losing the ability to react as we necessarily should do to them: our compassion has been ‘stretched to its limits’.

This is a point which I feel I can defiantly relate to, many a time now adverts have come onto television and originally I may have turned the channel over to escape the shocking pictures, the more times I view them I find I am more able to ‘stomach’ them: my compassion for the subject has in essence been deflated by repeated viewings. On the same note, the same can be said to happen within the horror film industry. Over the years many horror films have been made with the intention of shocking and scaring people but watching the same type of horror makes people unaffected by this.

For example, when it was released in 1973 the film The Exorcist was said to be the scariest film ever made and was banned almost immediately from cinemas. 25 years on the film was re-released to the general public but was not given the bad press reports as it had received 25 years previously simply because the audience had become desensitised to the type of horror portrayed in the Exorcist. This is one of the reasons why the film-makers are always trying new things out in order to scare their audience. “Life is not significant details, illuminated by a flash, ixed forever.

Photographs are. ” (Sontag, 1978 and The Simpsons 1988) Sontag believes that the best way in which to demonstrate the power of the image is through photographs. Sontag, in an interview with Geoffrey Movius with the Boston Review explains that she understands photography as “a method of appropriating and transforming reality” and that photographs alone have the power to captivate the imagination because in essence a photograph is a moment in time which could never be recreated in the same way.

She also explains that a photograph has the power to make people think and reflect more than the moving images of a television. This could be partly explained due to the fact that with a moving image the image will be there only for a few moments and then it is gone meaning there is not enough time to reflect properly on what you have just seen. This is not the case with the photographs. With photographs you can have a lot more time to see and take in all the details of that photograph: the shading, the light, expressions on peoples face, etc.

The photograph above is that of a Buddhist monk in Vietnam immolating himself in protest against the Diem regime, 1963. The picture itself, although not particularly pleasant to look at has a tremendous amount of power to it which can captivate the viewer. You can see in detail the ferocity of the flames noticing that each flame is unique; the billowing of the smoke and you can even notice tell which way the wind is blowing; all things which you may not have been able to pick up upon if you were watching the same thing on television.

Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help the task is to understand. Narratives Can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us” (2003: 89) In this point, Sontag does concede to the fact that with photographs although they do have the power to shock us, photo’s can be taken out of context because unless a photo belongs to the photographer the photo is timeless. By this I mean to the viewer the photo could have been from anytime or of any place.

For example the photograph below depicts a large explosion in the background with some soldiers in the field in the foreground but you would be unable to distinguish when this photo was actually taken as it could have been from any war over the last 40 years. The viewer is given no more information on the subject and are therefore forced to use their imagination about where and what could be happening. In Regarding the Pain of the Dead Sontag concedes to the fact that photographs are ‘anti-linear’, that is to say that they do not have the linear existence as humans do.

In order for photographs to have a linear existence they require annotation to provide the context for the photograph. Only by doing this does the photograph achieve a linear existence because it gives its audience a time period in which to place it in. “Movies and television programs light up walls, flicker and go out, but with the still photograph the image is still an object, lightweight, easy to carry about, accumulate, store” (Sontag, 1978: 3)

In this quotation from Sontag herself, I believe that she is making the distinction that television and film themselves have a linear existence. By this I mean they have a beginning, middle and an ending. They start and then they stop so the power to shock and have a greater impact upon the audience is lessened. This is especially true when considering the fact that if moving images with the intention of shocking the audience and are repeated, the audience may be able to take away some comfort in the knowledge that the image will be over quickly.

In regards to the photograph on the other hand, they are actual objects, not a signal which is ‘beamed’ over to our homes and shown on our television sets. For this reason in my opinion I believe that Sontag is trying to make the distinction that the still image has more power in presence over the television in its ability to connect to the audience. This is reiterated in her book (2003) for in the book Sontag “seeks to understand the peculiar attraction exercised on the viewer by the still image of intolerable acts of war” (Jadine, Times, 2003).

This intrepid fascination with ‘inloteleable acts of war’ are also conceded by the author of the article cited above for she can remember whilst she was eight or nine examining pictures of the dead in the magazine Paris Match and then no sooner had she closed the book was it open again. For my second part of this essay I have found still images and video images which I have downloaded off the internet and my aim is simply to see which is more shocking: the moving images or still images.

My purpose for doing this is simply to test Sontag’s notion that the moving image does desensitise the audience whilst the still image provokes a more powerful reaction. (All the files for my comparison are available to view on the supplementary disk which accompanies this essay). For this I have chosen to examine artefacts from the Vietnam War and 9-11. For this section I was also going to include a small segment on the holocaust but the videos that are downloadable I feel are too explicit to view by anyone to view.

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