Sontag, Images, and Abu Ghraib

The proliferation of affordable digital cameras has made them staples of everything from Superbowl celebrations to Abu Ghraib prison and video footages of the beheadings of Daniel Pearl and Paul Johnson, posted on the web. The disturbing images that made their way out of Abu Ghraib raise again questions about the role of images of suffering. (For the record, I have a hard time believing that these Abu Ghraib images weren't already cycling through an intra-soldier fraternity as probably badges of honor in some sense.)

In Regarding the Pain of Others, cultural critic Susan Sontag takes up the history of war photography from its beginnings to the current Iraq war (though publication pre-dates the Abu Ghraib revelations). She grapples with the challenge for a kind of photography that hovers between voyeurism and journalism, and the deep ambiguity of photographs. In particular, she tracks the way in which the macabre and horrifying can be enlisted for both pacifist and militarist ends: on the one hand, such images are intended to show us the horrors of war (albeit still in a mediated form); on the other hand, the same images can be enlisted to motivate militaristic passions against "the enemy" who would cause such carnage. Thus the same images of children killed in the recent Balkan wars were circulated among both Serbs and Croats, to very different ends (p. 10). (So Bush capitalizes on images of recent beheadings as a way to further animalize and demonize "the evil ones;" this can happen only because we are systematically shielded from the equally (?) horrifying images of American "collateral damage.")

In the end, Sontag's little essay is an extended meditation on the hermeneutics of images, especially photography. On this score I was interested by two persistent themes:

1. Sontag clearly dismantles any notion of pictures, even photographs, being "realistic" or "objective" (the history of civil war photography is an interesting bit of demythologizing). At the same time, there is a certain indexical feature to photographs. So she suggests that "this sleight of hand allows photographs to be both a faithful copy or transcription of an actual moment of reality and an interpretation of that reality" (p. 26). Photographs are both record and testimony.

But for precisely this reason, the "meaning" of photographs cannot be completely governed by the photographer: "The photographer's intentions do not determine the meaning of the photograph, which will have its own career, blown by the whims and loyalties of the diverse communities that have use for it" (p. 39). This is just to translate Derrida's account of "decontextualization" or "undecidability" to images.

2. But almost in order to guard us against the previous point, Sontag seems to lapse into an almost 'Protestant' or Puritan reasseration of the word as governor of the image (I hear rumbling of Neal Postman here). Thus she places persistent emphasis on the role of "captions" in images (pp. 10, 45): "all photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions" (10). [Recall the role of Lenny's notes on his Polaroids in Memento.] But this seems to naively invoke a notion of text/caption which ignores precisely the point above about undecidability. In other words, Sontag seems to think that images are ambiguous, but texts/captions are not. But undecidability goes all the way down.

There's much more here than just this (e.g., an interesting critique of Baudrillard and Debord, pp. 109-111), but I was particularly prompted by her hermeneutics of the image.

And one fun fact: the Plymouth Brethren make a cameo appearance (p. 48)!