Reconsidering Sontag on Photography and War

Finbarr Wilson


Is there an antidote to the perennial seductiveness of war?

– Susan Sontag, “Looking at War,” The New Yorker, Dec. 9, 2002,

There had better be; but, for Susan Sontag, one place we will not and cannot find it is in the images created by photographers of war working in the field. Photo-documentary work is, for Sontag, semantically impotent, simply unable to loosen the shackles of causality and stretch meaning beyond the here and now, or the there and then, to embrace an abstract endeavour – specifically that of abolishing the lure of war.

For someone who has lovingly filtered through Abbas' Mexico again and again, read with fresh eyes the seminal works of Eugene Smith, I spluttered with indignation at the upbraiding. The perhaps languishing art of good photo-documentary work, is, for me, still art, and not to be hemmed easily into a narrow role as mere photo document. I was shocked, I was angry. But in a way, she's right.

I read Sontag’s arguments just prior to a war in Iraq which saw, perhaps, the greatest production of utterly useless images in history. Each failed in exactly the way she said they would. The photos shocked, they inflamed, but they never enlightened. They never gave us a broader or more in-depth understanding of this war in particular or of war in general. Instead, they acted as a visceral confirmation of each side's preconceptions, reinforcing whatever bias we had in the first place. Their meaning was entirely derivative of who was photographed doing what: show a hundred images of sullen captured Iraqis, and American editorialists were overjoyed. Change the captives to four Americans, and the same human expressions of fear and shame inspired a near revolt of indignation at the atrocity of it all on CNN.

Such images did not broaden our humanity, they narrowed it. Even the most horrific pictures, few of which we saw anyway, were used to spur one side or the other to greater heights of animosity, the response entirely dictated by which side you happened to be on. There were certainly shots that would have suited either side equally well. As Sontag writes, “all photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions,” (p. 86) and, of course, we tamely followed suit. “American blood bad. Iraqi blood good,” was all we brought to those photographs and, in turn, it was all they returned to us, albeit amplified.

Here, the photograph really did have “only one language,” (p. 86) as Sontag argues. Shock was its only motive and horror its sole currency. The photographs' only real purpose was motivational. In fact, it is hard to argue about the semantics of such images since they do not mean at all. It was the written word, the caption, that provided the meaning behind the image. The reasons to fight, the reasons not to fight, were built on firmer stuff than pictures of blood, steel and guts: words and a narrative line provided the scaffolding for the gripping but ultimately vacuous images.

In other wars much the same thin but brutal photography was put to much the same use, amounting to nothing without an idea of who is being photographed and on what side they fought. As Sontag notes, a photo of a half dismantled face, is a “camera's record from very near of a real person's unspeakably awful mutilation; that and nothing else.” (p. 89) In other words, it can go nowhere towards explaining war. Such photos have very little in the way of semantic teeth and need support. " Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock but don't help us much to understand. Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt.” (p. 94)

Trapped in the merely grim, Sontag argues that photography's answer is to abandon visceral horror in favour the abstract, and for that she turns to conceptual photographer Jeff Wall’s Dead Troops Talk as a new lexicon. It is, of course, an impossible photo, at least by the usual means. It is fantastical. Fake Russians soldiers are suffering fake wounds. Ghosts sort their own guts and marvel at bits of brain, while the living look on disinterested. And for what? It's an ironic grey nihilistic piece – and that's the point. Like chucking the chaff, Jeff Wall blatantly jettisoned all pretence of reality, leaving behind a grim captivating absurdity: war. And like all good abstract art, it makes a point effectively and distinctly. But as a French general once said in very different circumstances, “C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre.

Wars are not about wax figures, ketchup for blood, or Vancouver actors. They actually happen, however absurd that may appear from a Vancouver art school. Wars involve real people with real emotions that run the gambit from hatred to love to self-sacrifice. We can philosophise about war, and Wall does it well, but I don't feel that in and of itself will prove much. Far from it: just how many human actions actually make abstract sense?

By delving into the abstract, we are not clarifying and broadening the issue. Instead, I think we are pretending it is a lot simpler than it is so we can discuss it in polite company. But war isn't for polite company, and the specific hatreds we are trying to jettison to speak in the abstract are the very ones that matter most.

It's questionable that the historical combatants used as a template in Wall's image felt disinterested. In fact, they were probably hugely motivated. Sontag sees this as contextual limitation that will inevitably appropriate the meaning of a photograph from any conflict: since a photo-documentary image is necessarily of one side or the other, it will never escape the concrete limitations of politics and history imposed upon it. But deep seated rage, anger and bias are not peripheral to war; they are its life blood. If we do not capture this, we’re not talking about war at all. We can no more understand modern war in the abstract than we can understand being in love without caring.

To oppose war, Sontag would have photographers hide in studios when the gifted should be making their case in Palestine and Belfast. If there is a universal abstract photographic case against war, its semantic imperative comes because of the way things really are, not in spite of reality. Keeping in mind Sontag's appropriate rejection of the simply horrific, is there then, a means to document war without delving into the abstract and completely non-referential? There is. And it's been around for hundreds of years.

There is no question Goya's work on the Napoleonic Spanish wars are far more than a document of what happened during a single war, in spite of being tied directly to real events. Even the French will recognize the barbarism of an occupying power, any occupying power, in his depictions of mass executions. In modern times, photographs of the actual have gone far beyond a mere document of war, and served to interpret and explain at a much deeper level.

Larry Towell's work in El Salvador and in Palestine are good examples. These are photos with more than a passing sympathy for their subjects. Yet unlike the merely horrific on the front page of a newspaper, Towell's work is humane, sublime and explanatory. The photographs are not merely emotional flashpoints to be abused by either side. In one famous shot, out-of-focus Palestinian children wave handguns, or toy guns. Behind them, sharply in focus, is a wall with slogans. I can't read what they say because they’re very likely in Arabic. And truth be told, I don't really know if the children are Palestinian. It is a photograph of conflict, yes, but not in Sontag's sense. She only deals with the horrific, and for her it seems there is no other sort of conflict photography.

Towell’s image is not horrific, but it is disturbing. These are children growing up in conflict, and growing into conflict. Contrary to Sontag's views, it really is not that important which side they are on. In fact, the slogans could just as easily be in English on the streets of Belfast – at least for me. What I find interesting is what the photo says about conditioning in war, and how we bring up our children in such situations. It is a wide ranging photo that within the narrative created from the entire body of work makes a valuable and, yes, abstract point.

In another photo of Towell's, this time in El Salvador, again the pain of war is not shown directly. A woman stands at a corner with a painted mask hiding we-know-not-what-scars. I don't remember if there is a caption telling us who she is and which side did the deed, but does it matter? She is a woman now borrowing a face. She is a victim of war in the broad sense.

Without using the horrific as a voyeuristic tease for an informative caption, both these photos illuminate the nature of war. They do it without depending on the audience's political or historical agreement, and this from a photographer who has clear political sympathies. Ironically enough, it is the run of the mill photojournalist acting “objectively” who produces the most easily abused photographs.

What Towell's photos suggest is that thoughtful photography which uses all the apparently random features before the camera for their symbolism, mood and content, can produce work that dissects the nature of a war – of any war. Towell, however, is not a classic war photographer. His work verges on artistic sociology. But even the be all and end all of war photographers, Larry Burrows, went well beyond Sontag's limits and produced polemics.

That one photograph. That famous photo in Vietnam of a wounded man walking, he’s black, his arms are outstretched to help another on the ground who is white, his arms stretched out like he's on the Cross, his eyes shut – with pain? Tired? Two nearly forgotten men in an unpopular war. One trying to help the other. Does it matter which uniform they wear? Unlikely.This photo is about more than that. The faces, the expressions, like a painting from the Bible, it is about grand themes: kindness where none should be had, brotherhood when death is all about.

Sontag doesn’t see it that way. Burrow’s image is published in her essay as an example of a photo that is merely brutal. And it would indeed be merely brutal if you looked only at the mud, bandages and blood, but the photographer did not take that shot for those reasons. They were part of the rationale, for it was war, but unlike a mere document of pain, there was more. Burrows was looking, I have no doubt, at faces, expressions, gestures and symbols to make a point. For Sontag however, “everyone is a literalist when it comes to photography.” (p. 90) Perhaps that's a point she should revisit. It may have proved self-fulfilling.

For Sontag not to see the semantic depth of work like Burrows, Towell and Smith takes some explaining. She has certainly seen much of it a thousand times, and even under the endless wave of the purely brutal from Iraq, even then this work stands out. It means something more than our preconceptions. It adds to our humanity. My guess is that language has taken hold.

There is something seductive and the written word, especially to academia. On paper, in black and white, abstracted from the world, words holds the promise of answers. Unlike the opacity and complexity of a human face or the vagueness of a good painting that withstands a thousand visits without providing certainty, words can be equations: they have answers. Sontag fell for it.

She's taken a profound and crucial insight into the nature of photography, and made it into a fixed idea. Photo-documentary work is indeed a causal creature. Practitioners depend on the particular before them to make their case. It is their clay. But that does not mean they can make only a bigger pile of clay. The vision of a good photographer sees symbols and themes in the causal which have a far greater reach than the event or place itself. And then it is, in fact, possible to tease the profound out of the mundane.

– Finbarr Wilson, Calgary 2003