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Archives of Horror

the clarity of everything is tragic”

—Witold Gombrowicz

I still have a memory of a stack of old magazines I used to thumb through at my grandmother’s house almost sixty years ago. They must have dated from the early years of the century. There were no photographs in them, just engravings and drawings. I was especially enthralled by scenes of battles that were most likely depictions of past Balkan wars and rebellions. They were done in the heroic manner. The soldiers charged with grim determination through smoke and carnage; the wounded hero lay with his chest bared in the arms of his comrades seemingly happy as to how things turned out. It was the kind of stuff that made me want to play war immediately. I’d run around the house shooting an imaginary rifle, crashing down on the floor mortally wounded, then immediately jumping up again to fire at the enemy until my grandmother ordered me to stop. Her nerves were frayed enough already since there was plenty of real shooting to be heard all around us.

The year was 1944, the Russian army was closing in on Belgrade, the Germans were digging in to fight, while the Americans and the English took turns bombing us. If one escaped the city, one was in even greater danger, since a civil war raged in the countryside between Communists, royalists, and several other factions, with civilians being killed indiscriminately. Like many others, my parents went back and forth. Even a six-year-old had numerous opportunities to see dead people and be frightened. Still, I made no connection then, that I recall, between what I saw in those magazines and the things I witnessed in the streets. That was not the kind of war I and my friends were playing. This may sound unbelievable, but it took war photographs and documentaries that I saw a few years later to impress upon me what I had actually lived through.

One day when I was in third or fourth grade our whole class was taken to a museum to see an exhibition of photographs of atrocities. The intention, I suppose, was to show the youth of a country whose official slogan now was “brotherhood and unity” what the fascists and their local collaborators had brought about. We, of course, had no idea what we were about to see, suspecting that it would be something boring, like paintings of our revolutionary heroes. What we saw instead were photographs of executions. Not just people hanged or being shot by a firing squad, but others whose throats were being cut. Ordinarily, we took the opportunity of these class trips to tease the girls and generally make a complete nuisance of ourselves, but that day we were mostly quiet. I recall a photograph of a man sitting on another man’s chest with a knife in his hand, looking pleased to be photographed.

As terrifying as the scenes were, they tend to blur in my mind except for a few vivid details. A huge safety pin instead of a button on the overcoat of one of the victims; a shoe with a hole in its sole that had fallen off the foot of a man who lay in a pool of blood; a small white dog with black spots who stood in the distance, wary but watching. It was like seeing hard-core pornographic images for the first time and being astonished to learn that people did such things to one another. I could not talk about this to anybody afterward; neither did my schoolmates say anything to me. Our teachers probably lectured us afterward about what we saw, but I have no memory of what they said. All I know is that I never forgot that day.

I suspect Susan Sontag has written a book others thought of writing but chickened out of. The images of war atrocities may seem like a subject about which there’d be plenty to say, but somehow it turns out not to be the case. As with other all-powerful visual experiences, there’s a chasm between what one sees and what one can articulate. For instance, I can recall down to its minutest details Ron Haviv’s close-up photograph taken in 1992 of a Muslim man begging for his life on the streets of the town of Beljina in Bosnia. I feel the horror at what is about to take place, can even imagine what is being said, know well enough that these men with guns are without pity. And yet nothing that I can imagine or say equals the palpable reality of this terrified, pleading face on the verge of tears.

Who is this witness, I ask myself, this photographer who gives himself the godlike right to be there? Did he just happen to come along? What took place after the camera’s click? How come the killers let him go with the evidence of their crime? Did they exchange any words before he went his way? Is it true then, as Sontag wrote in On Photography (1977), that the camera is a passport that annihilates moral boundaries, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed? If there’s anyone capable of answering these thorny questions, it is she. As that early book demonstrated, she is a most probing critic, one of the very best writers on photography in its history.

Regarding the Pain of Others is a book about photographs without a single illustration. It begins with a discussion of Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, a book of reflections on the roots of war. In order to test our “difficulty of communication,” Woolf proposes that we look together at images of Spanish Civil War atrocities. She wants to know whether when we look at the same photographs, we feel the same thing. Sontag tells us that Woolf professes to believe that the shock of such pictures cannot fail to unite people of good will:

Not to be pained by these pictures, not to recoil from them, not to strive to abolish what causes this havoc, this carnage—these, for Woolf, would be the reactions of a moral monster. And, she is saying, we are not monsters, we members of the educated class. Our failure is one of imagination, of empathy: we have failed to hold this reality in mind.

Who are the “we” at whom shock-pictures such as these are aimed, Sontag wonders. In 1924, Ernst Friedrich published in Germany his Krieg dem Kriege! (War Against War!), an album of more than 180 photographs drawn from German military and medical archives, almost all of which were deemed unpalatable by government censors while the war was going on, thinking that circulating them widely would make a lasting impact. As Sontag describes it, the reader gets a photo tour of four years of slaughter and ruin: pages of wrecked and plundered churches, obliterated villages, torpedoed ships, hanged conscientious objectors, half-naked prostitutes in brothels, soldiers in death agonies, corpses putrefying in heaps, close-ups of soldiers with huge facial wounds, all of them meant to shock, horrify, and instruct. Look, the photographs say, this is what it is like. This is what war does. By 1930, War Against War! had gone through ten editions in Germany and had been translated into many languages. Judging by the refinements in cruelty in the next war, its effect was zero. Here’s what Sontag has to say:

The familiarity of certain photographs builds our sense of the present and immediate past. Photographs lay down routes of reference, and serve as totems of causes: sentiment is more likely to crystallize around a photograph than around a verbal slogan. And photographs help construct—and revise—our sense of a more distant past, with the posthumous shocks engineered by the circulation of hitherto unknown photographs. Photographs that everyone recognizes are now a constituent part of what a society chooses to think about, or declares that it has chosen to think about. It calls these ideas “memories,” and that is, over the long run, a fiction. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as collective memory—part of the same family of spurious notions as collective guilt. But there is collective instruction.

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.

I imagine most of the people carrying out the butchery in Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s had already seen in previous photographs of war everything they were now doing. In the days of nationalist euphoria that preceded these crimes, television audiences all over Yugoslavia were being shown pictures of what one ethnic group did to the others in the past. Sontag is right when she points out that images of dead civilians serve mostly to quicken the hatred of your enemy. She writes:

To an Israeli Jew, a photograph of a child torn apart in the attack on the Sbarro pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem is first of all a photograph of a Jewish child killed by a Palestinian suicide-bomber. To a Palestinian, a photograph of a child torn apart by a tank round in Gaza is first of all a photograph of a Palestinian child killed by Israeli ordnance.

Looking at pictures of Serbian atrocities in Croatia, it occurred to me that Serbs who saw them may have been envious. They yearned to do the same to Croats. Today, of course, Serbs find it difficult to look at photographs of what was done in their name. The usual response, as Sontag notes, is that these pictures must be fabrications since our brave fighting men are incapable of such barbarities. It seems that, for nationalists everywhere, feeling remorseful for the wrong one has done to others is a sign of weakness and nothing more.

Do photographs that permit one to linger over a single image make a greater impact on viewers than violence on television and in the movies? Sontag believes they do, and I agree. The collapse of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, was almost universally described as “unreal,” “surreal,” or “like a movie,” and it was. The still images made by both professional and amateur photographers are at times more direct and thus more powerful, as anyone who has seen them will testify. Even the death and destruction in the Vietnam War, which was documented day after day by television cameras and brought to our homes, did not seem to make as much of an impression as a few famous photographs of that war did. “Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image,” Sontag writes in Regarding the Pain of Others. Photographs, her argument runs, seem to have a more innocent and more accurate relation to reality, or so we tend to believe. They furnish concrete evidence, a way of certifying that such and such did actually happen.

We are more suspicious of movies and documentaries since we know that they can be edited to make a particular aesthetic or political point. Even though the same can be done to a photograph, we rarely question what we are seeing. The most famous photograph of the Spanish Civil War is a blurred, black-and-white image of a Republican soldier shot by Robert Capa’s camera at the same moment as he is struck by an enemy bullet. The photographer, we think, had the presence of mind to point his camera and bear witness and we admire him for it. “Everyone is a literalist when it comes to photographs,” Sontag writes. It’s disconcerting to learn from her book that this photo may have been staged, as were many other long-familiar war photographs of the past, for reasons of expediency and propaganda.

Is there a shame in finding oneself peering at a close-up of some unspeakable act of violence? Yes, there is. Can you bear to look at this without flinching, a photograph asks, and often we can barely find the strength to do so, as in the well-known Vietnam War photograph taken by Huynh Cong Ut, of children shrieking with pain and fear as they run away from a village that has just been doused with American napalm. What makes it shameful is that the photograph is not only shocking, it is also beautiful, the way a depiction of excruciating torments of some martyr can be in a painting. “The aesthetic is in reality itself,” the photographer Helen Levitt once said. One ends up by complimenting the man with the camera who not only documents the horror but manages to take a good picture. Sontag writes:

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…. Photographs tend to transform, whatever their subject; and as an image something may be beautiful—or terrifying, or unbearable, or quite bearable—as it is not in real life.

The photograph gives mixed signals,” Sontag says. “Stop this, it urges. But it also exclaims, What a spectacle!” The Khmer Rouge took thousands of photographs between 1975 and 1979 of men and women just before they were to be executed. They stare straight at the camera, the number tags pinned to the top of their shirts. Their expressions are in turn serious, disbelieving, worn-out, and somehow still curious about what comes next. It’s hard to meet their eyes, while at the same time one can’t stop looking at them. We are all voyeurs, whether we like or not, Sontag writes, and who could pretend otherwise? “All suffering people look the same,” a friend of mine likes to say. This is true up to a point, that is, before the camera makes them distinct. A little private light bulb that illuminates the life of each of us comes to be lit by the photograph. Our memories are dark, labyrinthine museums with an occasional properly illuminated image here and there.

Is it correct to say that people get used to these?” Sontag asks. Are we better off for seeing images of atrocities? Do they makes us better people by eliciting our compassion and indignation so we want to do something about injustice and suffering in the world? Finally, are we truly capable of assimilating what we see? She notes the mounting level of acceptable violence and sadism in mass culture, films, television, and video games. Scenes that would have had the audiences cover their eyes and shrink back in disgust forty years ago are now watched without a blink by every teenager. The same is true of the world out there. People can get used to bombs, mass killings, and other horrors of warfare. Today I find it hard to believe that I once swiped a helmet off a dead German soldier, but I did. Despite what believers in long-repressed and buried memories may think, fear and shock unfortunately have expiration dates. For every dreadful image I recall, I have forgotten thousands of others. In On Photography, Sontag argued that an event known through photographs after repeated exposure becomes less real. As much as they create sympathy, she wrote then, photographs shrivel sympathy.

In her new book, she’s no longer sure. “What is the evidence that photographs have a diminishing impact, that our culture of spectatorship neutralizes the moral force of photographs of atrocities?” she asks. Our military shares her uncertainty and has no intention of testing its truth by letting photographers roam freely on the battlefield. There are hardly any images of the dead in the first Gulf War, mainly stories of wild dogs tearing at the corpses of the Iraqi dead. A few pictures slipped past censorship of the war in Afghanistan, but the overall policy is to conceal the effects of warfare, especially on civilians. The military learned its lesson in Vietnam. “The war itself is waged,” Sontag writes, “as much as possible at a distance, through bombing, whose targets can be chosen, on the basis of instantly relayed information and visualizing technology, from continents away.” When local television stations begin showing images of civilian casualties we do not hesitate to bomb them into silence, as happened in the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and with al-Jazeera in Kabul. “When there are photographs,” Sontag writes, a war becomes “real.” The revulsion at what the Serbs had done in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo and the almost universal demand that something be done about it were mobilized by images. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with Cambodia and Rwanda, photographs do not always guarantee accountability. Still, a war without pictures, or rather a war sanitized to a few propaganda images, is a frightening prospect.

Sontag is rightfully angry with certain French intellectuals fashionable in academic circles who speak of “the death of reality” and who assure us that “reality” is now a mere spectacle. “It suggests, perversely, unseriously,” she writes, “that there is no real suffering in the world.” And yet, there was a time when she was somewhat inclined toward that view, when she was tempted to say that it is images and not reality that photography makes accessible. She charged photography of doing as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it, and she was not wrong. “Photography implies,” she wrote, “that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks.” Some reviews of the new book I have seen claim that she has now repudiated this view. This simplifies her ideas in the earlier book about the relationship of the image world to the real one which are not only more nuanced, but are also mindful of the long history of that question going back to Plato. By insisting that there is indeed such a thing as reality, it does not mean that she now embraces a reductive, either/or approach with truth and beauty as irreconcil-able opposites. Lastly, it’s not photographs of bell peppers, nudes, or the Grand Canyon that are her subject here, but rather what she once called “the slaughter-bench of history.”

Timely as it is, Sontag’s extended meditation on the imagery of war in Regarding the Pain of Others is guaranteed to make some readers uneasy. These are things they’d rather not dwell on. Consumers of daily violence, she knows, are schooled to be cynical about the temptation of strong feelings. Her book on the other hand bristles with indignation. She has no patience for those who are perennially surprised that depravity exists, who change the subject when confronted with evidence of cruelties humans inflict upon other humans. “No one after a certain age,” she goes on to say, “has the right to this kind of innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of ignorance, and amnesia.”

Sontag is a moralist, as anyone who thinks about violence against the innocent is liable to become. The time she spent in Sarajevo under fire gives her the authority. Most of us don’t understand what people go through, she writes. True, we only have photographs. Even if they are only tokens, they still perform a vital function, Sontag insists. They certainly do for me. Like the one by Gilles Peress I saw some years ago of a child with eyes bandaged being led by his mother down a busy street in Sarajevo. Or another, by the same photographer, where we see a man in a morgue approach three stretchers with bodies lying on them and cover his face as he recognizes a friend or a relative. The morgue attendant is expressionless as he stands watching.

Men and women who find themselves in such circumstances, one says to oneself, do not have the luxury of patronizing reality. Such photographs preserve, however tenuously, the mark of some person’s suffering in the great mass of faceless and anonymous victims. We ought to be grateful to Susan Sontag for reminding us of this. If photography is a form of knowledge, writing about it with critical discernment and passion, as she does, is bound to make trouble for every variety of intellectual and moral smugness.

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