Reactions to Sontag’s “Looking at War”

In Susan Sontag’s “Looking at War,” Sontag describes the way in which photography allows us to observe, consume, and relate to the pain of others. Photos, she tells us, provide powerful and moving sources points of connection through which we might better represent pain that is foreign and removed. However, even more importantly, Sontag reminds us that photos carve out exception impressions of suffering in our mind, offering neither comprehension nor identification. Photographs create visual spaces of exception in which viewers can witness atrocity in a way that is meaningful but still removed, perhaps missing entirely the way in which war causes banal, prolonged pain.

This week in class as we looked at war photographs, I was struck by one photo in particular as exemplary of the way in which photos might move us emotionally without providing narrative understanding to help us better untangle the causes and experiences of suffering through war. Eddie Adams’ photo of a Southern Vietnamese general killing a Viet Kong suspect exemplify’s much of what Sontag discusses. While the photo is gripping, portraying a man in palpable agony, seemingly living out his last seconds, it also offers no means to better understand the Vietnam War or why he was dying. While it catalyzes an emotional response, that emotional stimulation absent narrative guidance, offers sheer, raw opportunity to mobilize ideologies. Years after the photo was taken, Adams’ ended up apologizing the the general’s family, insisting that even if what he did was not right, it is important for us to put ourselves in his situation.

Eddie Adam’s Photo of a General and Viet Kong Subject

Adams’ words illustrate a critical reminder for our society as it consumes photos of war and suffering: that for those of us who observe the visual rendering of conflict, we ultimately cannot identify with the lived experience of war. While it is easy to criminalize men like the General in Adam’s photograph, his suffering in a war-torn state is unintelligible to us, as we relate to him through this iconic, frozen moment alone, not as a human living out a narrative existence. His pain, his life story, and his relationship to this moment are unknown to us. Adam’s photo serves to mobilize our own preconceptions of the war in Vietnam, but offers no means for understanding the general or the man murdered. As Sontag suggests, “harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. but they don’t help us much to understand.”

When thinking about photographs and the power they have to draw on human sympathies, Sontag clearly suggests that it is crucial to remember that photos do not offer us honest understanding into the experiences of wartime. They offer isolated and often exceptionalized representations of conflict that for the people immersed in them are far from exceptional or isolated. Thus, while me may see pain and suffering in a way that stirs us personally, it does not offer us any means through which we can truly identify with the experience of that suffering. And while our sympathies might be rallied, they are often rallied in accordance with our own preexisting beliefs, rather than in empathetic identification with subjects and places we cannot truly understand.

Imagination of Images

Susan Sontag makes many very interesting points in Looking at War, among them the idea that written accounts will have more of an impact due to the increased attention and detail they require and can provide. I tend to agree with this point as text requires a bit more engagement to make sense of whereas images can leave us without context or coherence.

She also criticizes the sort of grand and perhaps abstract philosophizing of those such as Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle. This point left me a bit confused, as from what little I have read of the Spectacle his argument seemed to be more that in western society reality or relationships are inevitably becoming ever more media-ted by images. Almost like we live in an image-in-nation, nation of images. She goes on to state that no one can know what war is actually like: “Can’t understand, can’t imagine.” This seems to be in the same vein as what Debord might argue about the Spectacle and its unreality or mediation of reality via images.

Overall I enjoyed this article but it sort of leaves me aching for further analysis. It seems like she could have gone a bit further beyond culture and individuals to include the state, which is inextricably tied up with war, passivity, consumption, spectacle, and cultures of domination. Without this piece of the puzzle it almost feels like the article inadvertently obscures some of the context for war—the competing rulers’ positions—solely with a lack of comprehension of the true atrocity of war in a way reminiscent of the naivety of the peace movement that has little analysis of private property, wage slavery, borders and centralization of power.

I actually think one of the main problems is our lack of imagination in conceiving of alternate worlds, which is partly due to the narratives and images we are inundated with constantly. Those interested in such alternatives are more likely to search, find and create them, like a fire that has been lit and needs fuel. But those who have no concept of alternative seem less likely to fundamentally question what’s in front of them and do something about it.

Any Gym Is Home

 

“Any gym is home” a phrase passed along to every basketball player I know. The meaning? Imagine spending hours walking, sprinting, falling, and diving on the basketball court. Doing homework before practice or a game. Sweeping up the dirt and spreading sweat across the floor. Setting up tables and chairs, pulling out bleachers and pulling out rugs to set up for incoming guests. Having a “family” meal almost two to three times a week. Putting on your favorite music and dancing like no one is watching. These are just a few chores that exist to get ready for a game in the gym.

Our permanent home was at 901 N. Highland Avenue. But if we went to the court at the YMCA or Disney’s Wide World of Sports, those were our homes too. We were so accustomed to spending hours and days in the gym. Our bodies clinged to the smell of hot sweat and the sound of squeaking sneakers became music to our ears. So if we closed our eyes it was as if we were back at 901 N. Highland Avenue. This goes for every basketball player. As long as there is a court and a hoop it doesn’t make any difference of the address. Like I said we spent hours at the gym, sometimes even more hours than we are in our actual homes. The word locker-room became bathroom to us and each person had her favorite shower. For me, I do not associate “lets go to the gym” as running on treadmills or lifting weights or doing the “typical workout.” Gym=basketball in my terms and basketball court=home.

Don’t Doubt Your Dreams: Thoughts on “The Crossing”

As an American, I think it is ignorant of me to recognize immigration from Mexico only. Being unaware of the daily survival mechanisms, in regards to escape, that other cultures face struck me. Beni’s story resonated with me. I could feel his burning desire to reach a better life in Europe and I admired his faith in his journey. Doubt, fear, and pain are feelings that many would agree are not allowed in this lifestyle. When I was 12 or 13, I can remember scraping my leg on the basketball court or even getting a paper cut and how the pain impacted the rest of my day. Whether I had to limp or suck on my finger, I felt hindered by pain. In Beni’s case feeling pain during the crossing would mean death. His chief Dikembe states “Don’t let your body feel the pain. Pain will slow you down,” and if you are slow you will be one less person making it to the other side.

The odds of survival also shocked me in this story. Many would think that 500 men rushing across fences would be enough for at least half to survive. But from what I learned in this article they are lucky to even get 1 person over. Learning about the amount of lives lost (and young ones at that ) made me stop reading and ponder life. Like I said before doubt, fear, and pain could not be on their minds so what else would they feel? Hope? Happiness? How could they feel so strongly about something with those statistics? Their answer: “it takes God on your side.” Religion plays a major goal in many historically oppressed individuals. African-Americans used negro spirituals to get through their turmoil, defectors in North Korea released prayer guides, and Beni and his “brothers” used their faith in God to pull them through.

These young men face problems we hear about third world countries all of the time: poverty, war, and death. But to get a glimpse of how they are living through it is terrifying. This article really made me second guess complaining about another paper cut or how the food wasn’t that great in the DUC on a certain day. Although it is cliché, their confidence in survival inspired me to never give up on any dream you have.

Dziga Vertov

Picture of Dziga Vertov

Dziga Vertov

Dziga Vertov was a soviet pioneer, documentary film and newsreel director as well as cinema theorist. He influenced the cinéma vérité style and the radical Dziga Vertov Group (which included politically active filmmakers such as Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin. His theory of Kino-Pravda, or film-truth, captured actuality or everyday life. Much like cinéma vérité, this method would capture people’s experiences (sometimes without them knowing) whether it be at a bar or at a school making the cinematography simple. This style was an advancement compared to regular propaganda where reenactments or stagings usually occurred. Vertov maintained an active relationship with his audience. His segments defied narrative traditions and he made sure his series was influential despite its opposition towards dramatic devices.

When the Kino-Pravda series began, Vertov worked in a basement. He described the room as “damp and dark” which prevented his reels from sticking together properly. During his time agit-trains made it possible for Vertov to run film-cars which had actors ready for live performances and printing presses for regular propaganda. Vertov was able to create films on the go. The trains ran through battlefronts making his work available to a great amount of people. Vertov had a burning desire to capture “truth.” His compositions were intended to have “a deeper truth that cannot be seen with the naked eye.” Vertov had the ability represent the experience of others subtly and subjectively by eliminating narrative and using truth as his storyline.

At the end of his series he had used techniques such as stop motion and freeze frames that once again broke traditional narratives. He then expanded to experimental cinema which piggybacked his series by making films without narrative or scenarios. His most influential film Man with a Movie Camera (1929) is a prime example of his track to experimental films.

Response to Sontag’s “Looking at War”

The purpose of photography is interesting in that, initially, it appeared to have answered a call for greater objectivity in recording and sharing history; that said, although we are often quick to compare photography to paintings or writing, photos have just as much potential for subjectivity, which Sontag explains may be attributed to a number of sources. For instance, “it is always the image that someone chose; to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude.” Cottingley FairiesNowadays, the objectivity of photography is more often questioned due to the increasing reliance on tools such as Photoshop in creating the images to which mass media is constantly exposing us. In other words, it’s difficult nowadays for us to determine what is even real. However, back when photography was still considered a novel innovation, I think a photograph was more readily equated to a fair representation of reality. This is evidenced by the controversy that the truth behind “Cottingley Fairies” invoked in people.

I’ve always considered this initial lack of cynicism to be problematic because it brings into question the breadth of coverage we have of the past, especially since we began using photography as a tool for record-keeping. For instance, if you didn’t have the means to own a camera, your experiences wouldn’t have been represented, ultimately raising an SES/class issue. And even if another individual photographed you, their interpretation of your situation may completely misrepresent reality. Sontag touches on this when she writes:

The problem is in the pictures themselves, not the way they are exhibited: in their 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 that has fueled an insatiable appetite for the opposite sort of photograph: to grant only the famous their names demotes the rest to representative instances of their occupations, their ethnicities, their plights.

In a painting, for instance, we rarely ask for the names of the subjects depicted, and instead, focus on the overall scene. What exactly this says about art, I’m not sure, but I’ve observed that we tend to react to photographs in the same way despite the increased realness and therefore relatability of the subjects. My initial thought is that the stillness of a photo is enough to distance ourselves, to dichotomize “us” versus “them.” Kevin Carter’s photo of a vulture stalking a child.In my opinion, by allowing a single individual, such as in Kevin Carter’s photo of a vulture stalking a child, to be representative of an issue, photography inherently moves beyond the role of “generating documents” to that of “creating works of visual art.” Before reading this article, I had never considered the possibility that even early photographers staged their photographs, but thinking about it now, if photography was initially considered a rival to traditional art, then it’s logical that photography’s journalistic nature would have only been an afterthought.

Observing

This anthropology course never fails to provide me with material to respond to. However, the activity I want to reflect upon for this week is the request that each student “observe” and different space.

I was asked to observe Starbucks; I went to the one on campus. My opinion of the location is inherently biased, because I go there frequently. But I attempted to really look and think about the surrounding I was in.

starbucks

Initially, my focus was on the aesthetics of the location. The walls aren’t bright; they’re a muted yellow and blue color. The backsplash behind the barista counter is blue and reflective, and reminded me of mermaid scales. There are lightbulbs fashionably arranged to appear like they’re floating over one side of the room. The space is muted and earthy; tables are wood based and the furniture is dark. The smells of the location are distinctive too; the restaurant smells distinctly clean (but not in a chemical way), and is underscored by the scent of coffee grinds and baked apple bread.

The sounds of the location resulted in a different experience for me. This location plays music, often indie-rock or something of a folk-nature. Usually the voice of the primary vocalist is deep, soothing and supplemented by banjo. These artists are popular and poppy enough to have created successful songs, but not popular enough to evoke instant recognition. The music was at first calming, but in the space of 30 minutes, the music seemed to grow gradually louder. Again, in the past, I’ve had issues really working or writing in this location because I become more conscious and focused on the music as I spend time in the area. The bustle of the machines and the voices of the baristas can be heard. One woman’s voice was peculiar when she talked to customers; her pitch was fairly high and would rise when asking questions of the customers. Her voice sounded very positive, but the consistency of hearing her talk so chirpily for a half-hour made me perceive her tone as a forced one.

The sensory elements of this observation were in line with my day-to-day expectations of the location. However, during my observation, I began to notice habits the people in the spaces portrayed. The concept of physical space was a defining one; few people in the coffee shop actually speak to one another, even when they are sitting next to each other. While most of the furniture is grouped closely together, the customers would sit at least a chair away from other people. This perception of space was furthered by a young pair. The female was leaning onto the male’s lap, placing her head against his shoulder and grasping his arm. This couple was particularly shocking to see in the environment of the Starbucks. I think because so few people exhibited physical proximity or comfort with others, any overt expression of physical expression seemed excessive (even though it would not have been in different environments). This guarding (or lack there of) of physical space was displayed by a young man and woman. The woman, who was dressed in a crisp looking dress, and the young man, who looked casually clothed in a relatively good-quality t-shirt. I was unsure as to what their relationship was; they sat in seats that were close, but neither one actually touched the  other until the end of the conversation, wherein the woman shook the man’s hand, and the two parted ways. Because of the way that the woman enforced her personal space, I think their relationship was one of professionalism. However, I did not know how to factor in the man’s unprofessional attire with the situation I thought I perceived.

Another observation I focused on, which I had not in the past, was the racial diversity in the room. The majority of people were white females, with a scattering of people of different ethnicities. However, the only two black women in the store were working behind the counter. This concept is one that applies to Emory University as a whole. Our student body is composed of about 10% black students. However, the employees that serve us our food, clean our bathrooms, and do the jobs we all go to college so we won’t have to do are almost all black. This discontinuity between representation of people of color in the academic sphere makes me question the effectiveness of the American school system and the actual level of diversity Emory claims to have. This reflection, while distinctly different from the actual day-to-day events that occurred at Starbucks, is tied to my experience there.

I wonder how Anthropologists who attempt to go out into the field unbiasedly can do so with any amount of effectiveness.

 

 

 

 

 

A Camera’s Capability

Susan Sontag reiterates the simple power of photography that is generally ignored by our society. Especially in regards to war and other historical tragedies, photographs truly ingrain elements of our past into the present. According to Sontag, these photos “reiterate. They simplify. They agitate.” And all of this is true. I think that with other mediums of technology, people today can simply click the “x” out of a video, or click pause, or just mute it. But with photography, there is a sense of pause already… a pause in reality. It has a direct focal point of position, closing in on every problem, every mistake, and in this case every life taken by war. As we looked at the photographs in class, there was a silence in the beginning of every discussion, while we looked at them. Some of us had never seen them, and others have had them deep-seated in the back of our minds since the first time we looked at them. With these photos comes a sense of uncomfortability, but not in a negative way. I think that looking at photographs like these can be difficult to discuss because it’s a challenge to relate to these people; for we are lucky enough to not have been those situations. These photographs depict to us how grateful we should be for all we have, and to have never gone through such tragedy as others. When I looked at them, I felt guilty. I felt selfish and wrong for living the life I do. Coming to Emory even, while it’s a great education, I am getting opportunities that many others in these photos never even were given a chance to have. At the same time, that fact makes it difficult to relate to those in the images, because I have never gone through what they have. As Sontag reminds us, that there is a vast difference between empathy and sympathy.

A photo that I focused on in a previous class reminded me of the ones we looked at together.

This photo is by Marc Riboud, and is called The Ultimate Confrontation: The Flower and the Bayonet. He took this photo during the Vietnam War in 1967, and is generally a well-recognized photograph. It shows us Jan Rose Kasmir, an anti-war activist. Just at the age of seventeen years old, she walked up to National Guard troops outside of the Pentagon during a protest march. Apparently she was just trying to speak to the guards, and converse with them. I think it’s a very powerful image, as it shows the innocence with the flower, against the knives and guns aiming at it and the girl. It shows a very relevant paradox within society that is somewhat enigmatic. The photo is know pretty famous within the Flower Power Movement. As I look at it, I see a very emotional and impactful moment in history perfectly captured… a reality caught. This picture has a lot to do with what Sontag believes. She says that “photographs are a way of i imprisoning reality… One can’t possess reality, one can possess images– one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past.”

“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.

The Power of Photography

This week in class, it was interesting getting to see how we react and receive information when given to us in different forms and mediums. Furthermore, the techniques and methods used by each of these mediums, particularly photography and film, that make us feel a certain way or draw our attention to something in particular. For example, when we discussed the filming strategies used in Saving Private Ryan or talked about what stood out to us most in the iconic Vietnam War photo.

Answering questions about photography allowed us to open up to these new ways of thinking and interpretation. I have also come to realize, by examining and reading about war photography, how truly powerful photography can be. Reading Susan Sontag’s “Looking at War” made me think about an argument made by critic Roland Barthes on a certain photograph taken in 1865. The photo is of Lewis Payne, who was involved in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, as he sits on death row awaiting his execution. The photographer is Alexander Gardner.

Lewis Thornton Powell, or Lewis Payne, awaiting his execution (Alexander Gardner, 1865)

What fascinated Barthes was that this photograph was a representation of both the past and the future. It reveals something that has already happened yet at the moment it was taken, Payne’s death had not yet happened. Barthes resents the fact, however, that all photos are essentially a representation of the sitter’s impending death. In other words, a photograph is a past presence of a future death, whether the sitter is still alive or not. I think photographs (those that are not staged) provide such an accurate representation and authentic depiction of something that it allows us to place ourselves in that context, making them so powerful. We imagine ourselves in that moment and can feel completely transported. I think many of us felt this way when watching Saving Private Ryan or observing the Vietnam War photo.

I was also intrigued by Sontag’s comment about photography’s ability to turn something tragic and devastating into something beautiful. Why do we find images of ruins—for example, the remains of the World Trade Center after 9/11—so beautiful? As Sontag says, it seems almost “frivolous, sacrilegious,” but photographs following the 9/11 attack were, in fact, quite beautiful. As Sontag continues, “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.” Perhaps it is not the photograph itself, but a photograph’s ability to transport, transform, and create a certain sensation within us that makes it so powerful.