From the frontlines: what we see when we look at suffering


It has been a little over five months since Israel’s assault on Gaza. To mark this dismal occasion, The New York Times unveiled a catalogue of images in early March 2024. The online gallery opens with a stark portrayal: Palestinian women grieving for their loved ones lost in Israeli airstrikes at the al-Najjar hospital in Rafah. The photograph zooms in on three anonymous women, their faces etched with anguish. In the frame’s centre, a woman embraces two children, unaware of the camera’s intrusion. The photographer appeared to have interrupted a moment of private grief. By looking at it, we too turn into voyeurs.

The Times arranges the photographs chronologically so that as we scroll down, we are guided through the different stages of human suffering since its unfolding in October 2023. It labels Palestinians and Israelis distinctly on their website, suggesting universal suffering. Photography aspires towards objectivity despite war’s bias.

This was impossible, Susan Sontag argued. “War was and still is the most irresistible — and picturesque — news,” she emphasised. Her acerbic words are difficult to overlook. It is an idea she expanded in her works, On Photography (1977) and Regarding the Pain of Others (2003).

Sontag’s Image-World

We live in an age of images. We are seen, and sometimes we see. We are both observers and the observed, caught in the perpetual exchange of scrutiny. We have come a long way from Talbot’s Pencil of Nature (1844) or Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s “heliography.” We’ve taken a leap from Louis Daguerre’s once revolutionary metal plates to Open AI’s DALL-E. We make images just as they make us.

Indeed, in making such progress, we have had to confront our role concerning the technologies of image-making. What makes images human? Is a photograph different from other forms of visual images? John Berger, the renowned art critic and historian, seemed to think so.

In his discerning ode to photography, About Looking (1991), Berger asserted that, unlike other forms of visual images, a photograph was not an interpretation or an imitation of its subject but rather a trace of it. While the human eye and camera both “registered” an image, a camera did what the human eye could not. It “fixed” the appearance of the event. It froze time. Berger’s words are a discerning annotation to Susan Sontag’s celebrated On Photography (1977). Unlike Berger, Sontag is dramatic in her assessment. “Reality has always been interpreted through the reports given by images,” she asserted on an occasion.

A photograph had little power to summon the past, they insist. Marcel Proust, the author of the monumental In Search of Lost Time (1913-27), was distinctively unimpressed by its influence. The photographic process, its output, and the voluntary deliberateness of the past thus evoked seemed shallow to him. Berger reminds us that while Proust’s judgment may seem harsh, it is inevitable. Before the advent of the camera, humans had no means of capturing appearances. The faculty of memory came close. Despite this, Berger clarifies, “unlike memory, photographs do not in themselves preserve meaning. They offer appearances –”

Indeed, even as a photograph preserves appearances, it does not narrate. It freezes time without explaining it. To Berger, the camera transformed modern perception itself. The camera atomised the world, making it manageable. The taking of the photograph was no longer a ritual but a reflex. Reality was no longer inscrutable. Veracity became a function of the apparent.

We’ve all faced moments of helplessness as images commandeer our reality. Photographs have transformed us into consumers of events, of appearances. Images have given rise to what Sontag dubs the Image-World. In this system, unlike other technologies of image-making, the role of the image-maker is rendered negligible. In choosing to photograph, the photographer may assert his own role in the registering of reality. Yet, the end result— the photograph and its correlation to reality— is mediated by chemical processes in a laboratory. The earliest photographer manipulated light. Now, the manipulation is facilitated by the keypad.

Looking at, Looking away

Sontag directs our attention to a crucial aspect concerning the photograph: its ability to depersonalise our connection to reality. She observes that we’ve devolved into bystanders, voraciously devouring an unrelenting blitz of images depicting violence and suffering. And we remain insatiable.

In her subsequent book-length essay, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), Sontag focuses on the consumers of images. Photographs of the sufferings of others are as seductive to the photographers as it is to us. We look at photographs in a gallery, book, or website. We are stimulated, moved, perhaps shocked. However, just as a visit to the gallery must eventually end, a book must be shut, and websites must inevitably be closed. Even the strongest emotions are transient, Sontag reminds us.

Do we then cease to look? Sontag seems to think otherwise. The impulse to look is rooted in the privilege to look away. If, however, we persist, the structures of violence reveal themselves.

The photographs on the Times’s website are particularly revealing in this regard. The Palestinians suffer, endure, and die, but the Israelis are privileged to a dignified burial. Palestinians are traced amidst sand and concrete rubble while the Israeli war machine is meticulous. The Palestinian is barely named, while the Israeli is memorialised.

Jonathan Koshy Varghese teaches Literature at Lady Shri Ram College. He is associated with the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS, Paris), where he recently completed his PhD. His research focuses on how the interplay between law, literature and archives influence the historical portrayal of minorities in the Global South.

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