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Continued from Research point (ii) at https://cormac513273.wordpress.com/2014/09/04/research-point-ii/

Questions: Do you think images of war are necessary to provoke change? Do you agree with Sontag’s earlier view that horrific images of war numb viewers’ responses?

Susan Sontag (Sontag, 1977:18) cites as an example the photograph taken by Nick Ut in Vietnam in 1972 (see fig.1.) of a crying napalmed girl running from her village as evidence that images of war can provoke change. Sontag then compares the photographic representation of this war in Vietnam with another war of the twentieth century – the Korean War (1950 – 1953).  She writes:

One would like to imagine that the American public would not have been so unanimous in its acquiescence to the Korean War if it had been confronted with photographic evidence of the devastation of Korea, an ecocide and genocide in some respects even more thorough than those inflicted on Vietnam a decade later (Sontag, 1977:8)

However, she admits that this supposition is ‘trivial’ (Sontag, 1977:8) because the ideological space or ‘relevant political consciousness’ (Sontag, 1977:8) was absent for the reception of atrocity photographs of the Korean War, a war fought during the Cold War period of the 1950s.

It is reasonable to suggest from the evidence of the war in Vietnam that when such a consciousness is present then photographs of war can be effective in moderating the violence of armies (of democracies), especially when it is turned against civilians. Further evidence in favour of this suggestion comes from the measures (sometimes extreme) that governments take in order to prevent and supress photographs of war. For example, a photojournalist who reported on the 2003 Iraq war described the effective of these measures:

Today in Iraq there’s so many things we can’t photograph any more. Car bombings and suicide bombings are now off limits, it’s actually illegal to photograph those scenes. We can’t photograph wounded soldiers without their consent. We can’t photograph dead soldiers, coffins of dead soldiers… We can’t photograph battle-damaged vehicles, we can’t photograph hospitals, morgues are off limits now. So pretty much everything that gives evidence that there’s a war going on is almost impossible to photograph (Stallabrass, 2008).

Stallabrass (2008) suggests that images of war today are not effective in reducing the violence and inhumanity not alone because of the success of the direct measures taken by governments and military (above) but also:

The most fundamental factor that separates our world from that of the Vietnam era, with its effective photojournalism, is the lack of an opposition with a cogent world view, that could assemble the evidence—words, pictures and video—into a condemnation of the war that could not be ignored, that would gnaw at us and torture us as it did at many in the late 1960s. The sheer intensity of commercial competition to war imagery (from celebrity culture to YouTube to the fictional renderings of the ‘war on terror’ such as 24), the speed of gossip and self-fashioning through trivia, all this make it too easy to forget that bloody subterranean murmur that should stain our whole existence (Stallabrass, 2008).

This description is of the absence of Sontag’s ‘relevant political consciousness’ for the acceptance and effective of war photography (above) writ large.

The notion of photographs of war needing an ideological space before they can be effective suggests another aspect to the question as to whether images of war are necessary to provoke change, namely whether photography can play a role in the generation and maintenance of this necessary political consciousness. I’m not thinking here of the shock ‘headline’ photojournalistic images as cited by Sontag (above) but rather those photographs that form a constant background or reminder of the inhumanity of war. A good example of this is the images by Sabastiao Salgado of children impacted by war published as an insert (title: ‘War on children: a testimony’) in the UNICEF report (see fig.2.) on the impact of war on children (Machel, 2001). The images make real and vital what is otherwise a dry statistics-filled report. The decision to include the photographs in what is a general or ‘overview’ report perhaps argues against  Sontag’s view in relation to the use of photographs to awaken conscience, that ‘the more general they [photographs] are, the less likely they are to be effective’ (Sontag, 1977:17).

Another example of photographs that help maintain the ‘relevant political consciousness’, the existence of which ‘determines the possibility of being affected morally by photographs’ (Sontag, 1977:19) is the 2008-9 exhibition at London’s Barbican Art Gallery by Geert van Kesteren (‘Why Mister, Why?/Baghdad Calling’) of images taken by amateur photographers in Iraq. The publisher of van Kestere’s book ‘Baghdad Calling’ declared:

Besides these professionally shot images, the book reveals everyday life in the Iraq of 2006 and 2007 through the eyes of Iraqis themselves: a team round Van Kesteren amassed hundreds of photos from the mobile phones and digital cameras of Iraqi citizens that reveal places where journalists dare not tread for reasons of personal safety. These present a sequence of exploding grenades, family parties, ethnic cleansing, dancing in the park, demolished infrastructure, and hope of better times to come (Post Editions, 2008).

I think that on balance photographs of war can indeed provoke change, both as ‘shock’ images showing an immediate conflict, but also prompting those whose interest is in peace, to continue the work needed to achieve it. However, one of the factors determining how effective they can be is the extent to which viewers’ responses become numb due to repeated exposure. Susan Sontag in her book ‘On Photography’ (Sontag, 1977) held the view that repeated viewing of photographs of atrocity leads to deadening of conscience (Sontag 1977:21). This idea that ‘images anaesthetise’ (Sontag, 1977:20) has become to be known as ‘compassion fatigue’, and Sontag is credited as ‘the writer who drove much of the popularity of this thesis in relation to photography’ (Campbell, 2012).  Sontag’s reversal of her ideas in a later book (Sontag, 2003) ‘had little impact on the ubiquity of the compassion fatigue thesis’ (Campbell, 2012).

In her book ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’ Sontag (2003) gives what at first appears a compelling example of how people may become habituated or numbed to shocking images: public health authorities place shocking images (e.g. cancerous lungs) on cigarette packets in an effort to induce smokers to quit. However, ‘shock can wear off. Even if it doesn’t, one can not look. People have means to defend themselves against what is upsetting … ‘(Sontag, 2003:73). While accepting this argument nevertheless Sontag believes that habituation is not automatic and cites the examples of Christians who continue to be moved by representations of the Crucifixion, and audiences at emotionally themed dramatic works with which they are familiar from repeating viewing (Sontag, 2003:73). Thus images of suffering can be used as secular icons, as ‘objects of contemplation to deepen one’s sense of reality’ (Sontag, 2003:107).  In an echo of Stallabrass’ opinion on modern life (above) Sontag accepts that ‘space reserved for being serious is hard to come by in a modern society’ (Sontag, 2003:107).

Sontag suggests that with regard to the images of war in the media that ‘it is probably not true that people are responding less’ (Sontag, 2003:104). This subjective conclusion is supported by objective data that  public response to charity appeals has not diminished as might be expected if the ‘compassion fatigue’ thesis held true (Campbell, 2012) .

In conclusion, it appears that the content of photographs of war is not what confers meaning (or induces numbness); instead it is the context in which they are viewed that is the deciding factor. This context includes how and under what circumstances the photographs themselves are obtained and the receptiveness of the society to which they are displayed.


Campbell, David (2012) The myth of compassion fatigue [online] Available at:  http://www.david-campbell.org/2012/02/29/the-myth-of-compassion-fatigue/ (Accessed on: 07.10.14)

Marcel, Graca (2001) The Impact of war on children. London: Hurst & Company

Post Editions (2008) Baghdad Calling [online] Available at: http://www.post-editions.com/?page=baghdad (Accessed on 07.09.14)

Sontag, S (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Penguin Group

Stallabrass, Julian (2008) ‘The Power and Impotence of Images’, In:  Memory of Fire: The War of Images and Images of War, Brighton: Photoworks/ Brighton Photo Biennial, pp. 4-9. Available at: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/zones_of_conflict/Stallabrass-Power (Accessed on: 08.10.14)

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Nick Ut (1972) Accidental Napalm Attack At: http://www.ap.org/explore/vietnam-the-real-war/assets/1972_1__AP_Nick-Ut_Kim-Phuc.jpg (Accessed on 07.10.14)

Figure 2. UNICEF (2001) Book Cover At: http://www.unicef.org/publications/images/pub_impact_war_children_.jpg (Accessed on 07.10.14)