In this assignment for my Media Design class, we were required to read Susan Sontag’s “Regarding the Pain of Others”, select three photos she refers to her in her book and find three other photos from the last decade that exemplify her ideas.
The first picture I chose was Robert Fenton’s “The Valley of the Shadow of Death”, from 1855. Fenton was sent by Prince Albert as an “official” photographer and was instructed to provide a positive view of a war that dragged on and took thousands of British lives. Fenton was instructed to avoid photographing the dead, maimed or ill. Sontag describes this image as a ‘portrait of absence, of death without the dead’. Of all the pictures Fenton took, this was the only one that wasn’t staged. It shows a wide, empty road, littered with cannonballs. It is striking to me how, even when taken out of context, a snapshot of the aftermath of a violent event still succeeds in telling us everything we need to know.
Itsuo Inouye’s photograph above was taken in the city of Sendai, in northern Japan after a tsunami killed hundreds of people in March of 2011. The disarrayed state of the cargo containers is revealing of the tragedy that took place and the lives that were lost without having to show us a literal representation of those deaths. The devastation of natural landscapes and manmade constructions are already clear signs of death and loss. As such, we see the power of what Sontag dubs as ‘portraits of absence’.
The next picture I chose was Robert Doisneau’s portrait of a couple sharing a kiss on a sidewalk near Paris’ Hôtel de Ville. This image was taken in 1950 for Life and was thought to be a perfect representation of the romantic city, until forty years later, when it was revealed that the moment was staged and the man and woman in the photograph were hired to share a kiss. Sontag speaks of how the photographs we are most disappointed to discover are staged are those that depict ‘intimate climaxes, above all, of love and death’, because we need the photographer to be ‘a spy in the house of love and death’.
This argument reminds me of the nature of what is done by the paparazzi. The desire to see people in authentically intimate moments and to catch glimpses of what their lives are like is part of the reason why tabloids continue to sell. Their pages are treasure troves of ‘candid’ photographs of celebrities, whose lives seem to be so far removed from our own.
The above picture by Richard Lam went viral in 2011. Viewers immediately took to Twitter and Facebook, arguing the authenticity of the moment. In an interview, Scott Jones (the man pictured with his girlfriend) said: “I guess it was just such a good shot that people couldn’t believe that would happen.’” Sontag argues that ‘a catastrophe that is experienced will often seem eerily like its representation’ and uses the photographs of the attack on the World Trade Center as examples. This argument, however, can also be applied to snapshots like Rich Lam’s, which after exposure to decades of Hollywood’s fabricated romantic moments, might seem surreal and staged.
The last picture I chose was Eddie Adams’ snapshot of a chief of the South Vietnamese national police shooting a Vietcong suspect in a street in Saigon in February of 1968. To capture a photograph of death or just before death is one of the most celebrated achievements and often reproduced moments in war photography. This image in particular, however, was staged by one of the subjects of the photograph, instead of the photographer himself. General Loan wanted journalists to have a clear shot of the execution he was about to conduct. Sontag calls this a ‘co-spectatorship’ of indecency.
Photographer and fellow colleague Ruben Salvadori put together a video entitled Photojournalism Behind the Scenes, where he explored the relationship between the photographer and its subject. The picture above was staged in cooperation with a young Palestinian. The drama evoked by the fire and smoke behind the young man and the defiant pose tells us something that the picture below does not.
Although these images aren’t as extreme as Eddie Adams’ photograph of the chief of the South Vietnamese national army, I believe they reveal yet another aspect of what Sontag defines as a ‘co-spectatorship’ and show how it can influence and shape the resulting photographic moment.