Books, On Media & Design

Photography & the Pain of Others

A book review of Susan Sontag's work on photography, the pain of others, and documenting traumatic experiences.


I’ll be honest. Although the book itself is only 9 chapters long and comprises 126 pages, reading “Regarding the Pain of Others” by Susan Sontag was not an easy task. Sontag writes with such poetic depth that her empathy for victims of war, international conflicts, epidemics, and global crises reflect the both the beauty and the bite in conveying the reality of how certain historic photographs were captured.

“The photographs we are particularly dismayed to find out have been posed are those that appear to record intimate climaxes, above all, of love and death.”
—Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (55)

Sontag raises several questions regarding depictions of violence, conflict, and their aftermath on humanity, and these are questions that are both haunting and informative. We all know the old adage: a picture says a thousand words. Often, photos are used as evidence to document that a specific phenomenon has occurred. As Sontag writes on page 26, photographs are both an “objective record and personal testimony.” It can both be a “faithful copy of an actual moment of reality and an interpretation of that reality — a feat literature has long aspired to, but could never attain in this literal sense.” Given the dual nature of photography, we still have to question the content of those words while considering the context, in order to gain a true understanding of the story being portrayed in the photographs.

One of the main issues of concern is authenticity in photography. Are we really relaying the truth about current events to the public if the arrangement of elements within a photograph were actually staged?

As Sontag writes on page 47, “a single photograph or filmstrip claims to represent exactly what was before the camera’s lens. A photograph is supposed not to evoke but to show. That is why photographs, unlike handmade images, can count as evidence. But evidence of what?” 

One such example is the photograph entitled “The Falling Soldier,” which also goes by the name of “The Death of a Republican Solder.” The photograph was taken by Robert Capa during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s (September 5, 1936, to be exact). Capa claims that the photograph was taken at the very moment the Republican soldier was fatally shot in the head and died. It gained recognition for its depiction of the atrocities of war, as it not only showed the aftermath of war, but war in action.

Capa-Death-of-a-Loyalist-Soldier

Robert Capa’s photograph, “Death of A Loyalist Soldier,” also known as “The Falling Soldier.”

However, in the 1970s it has since been subjected to doubts from critics who believe that Capa had staged the photo, claiming that the photograph was actually an image of a training exercise near the front line — not an actual depiction of war in action. Sontag stated on page 55: “The point of ‘The Death of a Republican Soldier’ is that it is a real moment, captured fortuitously; it loses all value should the falling soldier turn out to have been performing for Capa’s camera.”

Sontag also writes about Mathew Brady and his team of fellow photographers, Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan, who were known for the first full-scale attempt to document a war (page 51). The Brady war pictures showed subjects such as encampments inhabited by officers and privates, as well as devastating photographs of Union and Confederate fatal casualties piled on top of each other in the aftermath of the battles at Gettysburg and Antietam.

However, we now know that the Brady team had staged most of the photographs through the rearrangement and displacement of some of the corpses at Gettysburg. Sontag describes this in detail on page 54: “[T]he picture titled ‘The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg’ shows in fact a dead Confederate soldier who was moved from where he had fallen on the field to a more photogenic site, a cove formed by several boulders flanking a barricade of rocks, and includes a prop rifle that Gardner leaned against the barricade beside the corpse.”

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Photograph staged and taken by Alexander Gardner, “The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg”

The staging of the dead with objects deliberately propped up beside them calls into question the validity of such events. We feel duped as the audience because the dead ought to be respected, and their bodies should have been treated with reverence for the life of the individual who had passed. We feel duped because we fell for the intimate emotional set-up that the Brady team — particularly Gardner — had staged in order to sell more pictures to newspapers. We feel outrage because we expect ethics in reporting, not the exploitation of those who have exited from this world. The Brady team, as it turns out, had used a particular type of photography process that was complicated, difficult, and time consuming, called wet-plate photography. They had to lug their heavy equipment with them over the rugged terrain of bloodied battlefields, including  a portable dark room, in order to capture and develop the photographs. Setting up the dead bodies and the objects on the battlefields, it seems, made it easier for the Brady team to execute this photographic process. However, despite the visceral images produced as a result of this process, the fact of the matter remains that the subjects in these photographs were staged, and the staging still taints the truth.

Sontag also writes about an entirely different kind of staging, this time depicting a completely different experience of witnessing. She writes on page 57: “That there have been so few staged war photographs since the Vietnam War suggests that photographers are being held to a higher standard of journalistic probity.” The advent of live television reporting, according to Sontag, “became the defining medium for showing images of war… the witnessing of war is not hardly ever a solitary venture.”

The photograph below depicts the deliberate staging of a savage execution. Except this time, it wasn’t the photographer who did the staging, and this was not meant to be an appeal to empathy to the aftermath of war. During the height of the Vietnam War in February 1968, the chief of the South Vietnamese national police, Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, shoots a Vietcong suspect named Nguyen Van Lem in a street in Saigon (Sontag, 58-59). With his hands tied behind his back, the prisoner was led out into the open street by General Loan where journalists had gathered. General Loan wanted witnesses. He wanted the journalists to document this execution, to serve as a public warning to any other Vietcong members who may have remained in hiding and/or may be plotting new schemes against the South Vietnamese. Eddie Adams was one of those journalists who captured this photograph, at the very moment when Loan aimed point-blank at Lem’s head and shot him, just before Lem would fall. The look on Lem’s face — the grimace of pain — is enough to unsettle any spectator witnessing this event at the moment of its unfolding and years later upon close inspection of the photographic evidence.

Saigon Execution Murder of a Vietcong by Saigon Police Chief, 1968

South Vietnamese Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the national police, shoots Vietcong officer Nguyen Van Lem, also known as Bay Lop, on a Saigon street on Feb. 1, 1968. Photo taken by Eddie Adams.


Media misrepresentations are bound to occur in photography, especially since we also live in a digital age when these images can easily be manipulated in software programs like Adobe Photoshop. How can we tell the factual apart from the fake?

One modern example of this comes from the January 2014 story of Narciso Contreras. Contreras, a Mexican photojournalist, was fired by the Associated Press (AP) for using Photoshop to remove a fellow journalist’s camera out of a single shot of what was supposed to be a Syrian rebel sniper getting into position to fire his gun. Contreras had previously won the Pulitzer Prize for the vivid photographs he captured of war and conflict in Syria, and he admitted that this was the only photograph he had doctored. However, through the erasure of the camera in the corner, the context changes, thereby changing our perception of the news coverage.

contreras-doctored-photo-before-and-after

Note the fellow journalist’s camera that was removed from the original photo, and replaced with a copy of a section of rock in that very same corner.

Manipulating photographs calls into question the integrity and truthfulness of news reporting. People want the truth, the entire truth, and nothing but the truth, and we feel betrayed when we learn that images we have clung to as evidence are actually not portraying the entire picture.

Another example of modern manipulation in photography comes from the story of Abdul Aziz al Otaibi, which also coincidentally occurred in January 2014. However, the intent of the photographer in this case was vastly misinterpreted. Al-Otaibi wanted to appeal to the emotions, just as the Brady team had done. However, this was an entirely different context: whereas the Brady team wanted to fully depict the deterioration and detriments of casualties of war, Al-Otaibi actually approached his photography from an artistic perspective.

Below are two sides of the same story: a young boy rests, sleeping in between what appears to be two mounds that could most likely be the graves of both of his parents. We naturally assume that, since it looks like the desert, and we know that there is currently a conflict in Syria, that this photograph most likely came from Syria and must have been captured by a photojournalist who found the boy mourning the loss of his family and yet finding some kind of comfort by sleeping next to their graves.

Without having seen the photograph on the right, however, you would think that this was the only story to believe, the only depiction of what you would have thought was the truth. There is danger in assuming, and as humans, we often fall prey to our own psychology and our own emotional projections.

al-otaibi-syria-photo-nephnew

According to the UK newspaper article in the Independent, Al-Otaibi stated: “I love photography… Every artist has ideas in his head. So I had the idea to make a project whereby I show in pictures how the love of a child for his parents is irreplaceable. This love cannot be substituted by anything or anybody else, even if the parents are dead.”

Unfortunately, it just so happened that the conflict in Syria had been escalating, and the people who have seen this photo circulating around the Internet happened to projected their own interpretations of the photography’s symbolism in the context of the crisis in Syria. This version of the photo appeared on Twitter, with people retweeting it on a viral scale.

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Regarding the unintended confusion, Al-Otaibi stated: “I am really very annoyed by this. It is just not fair to take one of my photos totally out of context and use it for your own propaganda.” Al-Otaibi had originally posted the photo (minus the added text) on his own Facebook timeline, and he had made it clear that the photo was actually staged for the sake of his own artistic expression. The boy in the photos is actually Al-Otaibi’s nephew. The boy’s parents are actually both alive. Both Al-Otaibi and his nephew live in Saudi Arabia, not in Syria. When Al-Otaibi sent a direct message to the Twitter user who had re-purposed the image, they responded saying, “Why don’t you just let go and claim it is a picture from Syria and gain a reward from God. You are exaggerating.” In this case, it’s worth noting that it wasn’t the photographer who was being disingenuous, but rather a member of the public witnessing the photo. Once published, it’s hard to control what others decide to do with the photograph, especially when they try to use it to advance their own propaganda.

In another instance of photography misappropriation, a photographer named Brian McCarty discovered that his work was being used by ISIS. What does one do when a global UN-designated terrorist group commits copyright infringement and uses YOUR photographs to advance their propaganda?

McCarty had originally been working on a project called “War Toys,” in which he turns the experiences of children’s firsthand accounts of war (usually their drawings) and produces photographs that are staged with locally found toys.

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McCarty turned a drawing by a 9-year-old girl (left) into a photo titled “Mother of Violence” (right).

The drawings of these children serve as a creative outlet for catharsis, especially after having witnessed and/or undergone these horrific and violent events. Children are often casualties of war; in this case, after ISIS tried to capitalize on their fears, the children who created these drawings from their painful ordeals and inspired these photographs became casualties of an intellectual property dispute as well. The staging of props and subjects in McCarty’s photographs differs from the way that the Brady team and General Loan had chosen to stage their photos. ISIS further infringed upon McCarty’s work and used Adobe Photoshop to further digitally manipulate the staging.

In 2012 while in Gaza, McCarty had found a drawing by a young girl who had an intense fear of getting killed by a missile strike. Below are photos of McCarty trying to recreate that drawing as part of the War Toys project. While in the process of setting up the props using toy missiles and a Cinderella figurine, McCarty could actually hear missile strikes occurring, which led to “Operation Pillar of Defense.” missilestrikedrawing

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McCarty recreates the above drawing using toy missiles and a Cinderella figurine.

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The resulting photograph from McCarty’s efforts to reinterpret and recreate the child’s drawing, juxtaposing the innocence of a fairytale character (symbolizing childhood) as the target of a missile strike.

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ISIS committed copyright infringement and altered McCarty’s photo for their own propaganda. Notice how ISIS replaced the Cinderellla figurine with religious iconography shielded by a bubble.

McCarty’s work was published through several media outlets and eventually came to the attention of ISIS. McCarty only discovered the copyright infringement after he joined Pixy, a service that helps photographers hunt for and combat photo theft. In an interview PetaPixel, MCarty stated: “Granted, working on WAR-TOYS has led to more than a few surreal experiences, but this was a new level. It felt like a kick in the gut to see my intentions for the project so horribly twisted. An image about an innocent child’s very real fear of war had been turned into something promoting that very thing, or at least an ideology with war and the killing of innocents as central tenants.” 

Brian McCarty’s original intent with the War Toys project was to document the effects of war on children. However, it is sad to realize that ISIS deliberately took Brian’s photographs and manipulated them for their own ends, misappropriating his work for their own call to terrorist violence under the guise of a self-righteous religious war. This twisting of the truth by a terrorist entity can be disheartening to discover, but as McCarty told PetaPixel: “As wrong as it feels to see the work used in this way, I can’t help but smile a little at whomever made the alternations. By replacing a toy, he or she has inadvertently equated the beliefs of ISIS to a plaything… If it weren’t tied to so much death and destruction, I’d be laughing.

This still relates to Sontag’s quote on page 81, regarding the ownership of such photographs. “Photographs ojbectify: they turn an event or a person into something that can be possessed. And photographs are a species of alchemy, for all that they are prized as a transparent account of reality.”

Photography is a way of turning memory into something tangible, something that can be held, shared, and revisited over and over again — often at the risk of unsolicited and unwelcome alterations or editing. However, copyright infringement aside, the idea of photographs turning an event or person into something that can be owned leads one to wonder about the following questions:

  • Who owns the pain of others?
  • Who is to blame for inflicting this pain?
  • Who has the right to document these people and their suffering during these events? Why should we document these events?
  • How can we tell the truth without sacrificing our integrity and credibility?
  • How can we avoid the misguided interpretations of our photos from others who may seek to misconstrue and misappropriate your photos for their own propaganda?

These questions are never easy to answer. Sontag recognizes this, writing on page 111: “Citizens of modernity, consumers of violence as spectacle, adepts of proximity without risk, are schooled to be cynical about the possibility of sincerity.” 

As much as we want to believe the story laid out before our eyes, it is also imperative that we question what we see and how these images are presented to us in order to arrive at any fair and accurate understanding of the truth. As citizens of modernity inundated with violent images of news events on television and in photographs circulated in newspapers and on news websites on the Internet, we do ourselves a disservice by remaining passive witnesses. We owe it to ourselves to continue that spirit of questioning in order to do the dead justice and treat the pain of others with the reverence that they deserve.

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Mindful Memory Keeping
    March 10, 2016 at 3:53 pm

    I love your conclusion here. Questioning rather than always existing in states of fact and logic can really help us explore the experiences of others and to really get deep with our own.

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