When we view photographs of war-torn bodies, piled-up corpses, or starving children, are we changed? How about the photographer, whether a professional or an amateur, who takes such pictures? Do these photographs teach us about suffering--or do they numb us over time and simply cause us to turn away? In this slim book Sontag re-visits her ideas in "On Photography," published 25 years ago.

Her aim, it seems, is not so much to answer the above questions but to provoke us by her statements, urging us at least to THINK about what happens when suffering is viewed third hand; because after all, she reminds us, we see only what the photographer wanted us to see. When scenes of violence are as close as our morning papers or our TV screens, Sontag's is an important debate.

She also gives a brief history of photo-journalism, from the Crimean and Civil Wars to the almost instantaneous transmission of images from Operation Iraqi Freedom. In chapters that sometimes seem to disagree with one another, she plays the devil's advocate and views the IDEA of photographs of suffering from all directions. Can gruesome photos be artistic? Should they be? And if a war photo is posed--a corpse moved for a better shot or a battle scene restaged to make it more dramatic--is the effect enhanced or decreased? She considers the impact of candid photos versus those technologically manipulated; she discusses how photos, and their impact on us, change when the names of the victims are revealed.


Sontag's statements about photographs of suffering might also help us think about the function of writing and reading about others' suffering. When she says, "No 'we' should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people's pain," I thought of how differently a patient's suffering might be written about by a doctor, a nurse, a lover, the patient himself, those of different cultures or beliefs.

When Sontag says, "The photographs are a means of making 'real' (or 'more real') matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore," I thought of how we attempt to use literature to guide the healthy caregiver to a more visceral understanding of suffering. She says that when we look at a photo, we should ask ourselves what atrocities are not being shown. We often ask ourselves the same thing about literature--whose point of view is left out?


This book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.


Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Place Published

New York



Page Count