“Looking at War” by Susan Sontag Reflection

In Sontag’s article “Looking at War,” she raises the point of what is the purpose of explicit war photography? While this question was originally raised after a gallery in New York in 2000 displayed pictures of African American lynching victims, this question is also relevant to war photography. Some may argue that the purpose of these images is to expose the “truth” of what is really happening during war. However, as observed in the famous photograph of the Vietnam War where a police chief is shooting a man in a plaid shirt in broad daily on the streets, this photograph does not necessarily display the “truth”. While the viewer does know that a man is shooting another man, we do not know what provoked this situation, who is in the right (if anyone), or even if the trigger was actually pulled. I would disagree with the notion that the purpose of these photographs is to show the truth of the war. Instead, I would say that the purpose of these photographs is to create an emotional bridge between the viewer and the situation. What I mean by this statement is that in order for a photograph to be effective, the viewer needs to relate emotionally to the picture.

Sontag does point out that there is a difference between pity and empathy when relating to a photograph. It is easy to pity the people in these images if the viewer has never experienced or come close to experiencing the situation that is being shown. Yet, this emotional response is still valuable because it draws attention to the situation in which people can further investigate their curiosity about the image. For example, although this photograph was not mentioned in the article, there is a famous image of a man standing in front of a row of Chinese tanks who were invading Tiananmen Square as a form of protest in 1989. Perhaps if a westerner viewed this image they would feel scared, sad, and pity the man in the photo. These feelings are still valuable because in recent Black Lives Matter protests, a photograph of a young girl standing in front of armed police men was similar to the “tank man” photograph in that they both showed a civilian standing up to the powerful forces in front of them. Western viewers who see the similarity in the photo happening in the USA to the photo in China can now empathize with the other situation. Therefore, I would argue that one purpose of these war photographs is to draw connections between different places so we can empathize with each other.

6 thoughts on ““Looking at War” by Susan Sontag Reflection

  1. Excellent post, Amelia – Thank you for making these important connections, between both protest and war photography, and between examples of iconic photography from across time and cultural differences. I encourage you all to take up Amelia’s challenge to relate our recent class discussions to the Black Lives Matter movement unfolding in our own streets today. How do questions of pity or empathy apply?

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