Whitney Museum of American Art, Nov. 5 2016
In the first chapter, Sontag illustrates that images of war should inform both those affected and those unaffected by the reality of the conflict. Sontag writes of an author, Virginia Woolf, who did a literary piece on how to avoid war. War, according to Woolf, is a masculine concept. War can never be completely abolished, but the way that communities react to war and the consequences of war can be improved. This drive to implement consequences can be done through distributing pictures of war to those in and out of the conflict, in order to provide a shared experience and to create a “we” when dealing with such a complex notion as war. Sontag then takes into account the possible fallacies of this idea; the perpetrators of war will argue that the photos are fabricated, and the victims could alter the perception of the conflict by changing the captions on photos to possibly make the perpetrators more guilty than they might be. On the other hand, both sides understand the power that photographs have, which is seen through media censorship and subsequent resistance of censorship during wartime.
The first chapter highlights the duality of interpreting war images, and expresses urgency and hope that viewers might be moved to react to these photos in a way that productively addresses the conflict that the images show.
Chapter 6 addresses the concept of fascination of the abomination. While in their compassion, humans naturally are drawn to horrifying images and sights because of an innate “love of cruelty.” Sontag highlights the conflict between horror and pleasure, especially within those viewing images of war as spectators. Having compassion as a reaction to an image is dangerous, because it can lead to inaction and hypocrisy on the spectator’s part. Furthermore, sympathy separates us from the conflict and guarantees us our safety as innocent bystanders. As a result, it is important to locate privilege when viewing a photo and to actively link audience and subjects together into one “we” that provides beneficial support to victims that are actually experiencing the trauma.
The sixth chapter exposes the process of viewing a horrifying image, and emphasizes the inherent selfishness of man that complicates the transformation of words into action.
In chapter 8, Sontag stresses that we as citizens of nations and of one communal “humanity”, there comes a point where we cannot be innocent or blind to the pain and suffering of others. In youth, it is acceptable, but once someone is exposed to horrifying acts of humanity, they have no excuse to be blind to them, and are obligated to absorb and remember these acts. However, remembering an act should not hinder humanity in moving on and healing from it. Consequently, humans will understand that evil exists and will continue to exist, regardless of if they are a bystander through viewing photos or witnessing it in real life. Despite its intricacies, the kind of thought that war images stimulate is important, because it allows for reflection on the individual versus collective choice and avoids an instinctual, irrational reaction.
The eighth chapter addresses the morality of viewing a war photo, and indicates that memory of a given conflict can only go so far in addressing said conflict.