Classifying Witnesses of Violence: Parsing Susan Sontag’s Distinction Between the Voyeur and Non-Voyeur (and a Hesitant Defense of War Photography)

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag, in a way, indicts those who seek out depictions of violence without the intention or ability to provide aid to those being harmed: “Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of…extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it…or those who could learn from it…The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be” (Sontag, 42). If the viewer is not able to help or does not intend to learn from their experience witnessing violence, then that act of witnessing becomes perhaps like the experience one has watching a horror film, where “There is the satisfaction of being able to look at the image without flinching. There is the pleasure of flinching” (Sontag, 41).

I think that this distinction between the voyeur and the non-voyeur in the discussion of viewing violence and representations of violence is an interesting one to consider when thinking about how to classify a witness and what we can say about that act of witnessing. Now, the actual nature and immediacy of the violence being witnessed, and the medium through which it is depicted, make this distinction between voyeur and non-voyeur (as Sontag notes) more complex than it might first seem – viewing a painting of Medieval torture or Titian’s painting of the flaying of Marsyas is a much different experience than viewing photographs of contemporary violence and war because the condition that the non-voyeuristic viewer be able to help those being harmed is not satisfiable in the former instances (one cannot keep Marsyas from being flayed both because the event is not a historical one and because even if it was, it would exist in the past).

One distinction that becomes important then is that between the viewer of ongoing, real violence – a viewer that is able to both help and learn – and the viewer of fictional or historical violence – a viewer that can learn but cannot act in a way that would negate their voyeurism. It would seem then that those latter viewers likely engage in their witnessing of violence to satisfy that aforementioned desire to flinch or not to flinch. However, even if this is the case, one could argue that there is always something learned from witnessing evil and violence – even if all that is learned consists simply in a reaffirmation of one’s understanding that cruelty and violence exist. Sontag notes that there is some good in such a reaffirmation, and thus, these depictions of violence have some use value, “Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing…Don’t forget” (Sontag, 115).

This is exactly the function of photography that W.J.T. Mitchell refers to in Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present. He writes that the Abu Ghraib photographs, if they achieved anything, made “visible what would otherwise have remained invisible” (Mitchell, 140). Now, the intentions that undergird our witnessing might be questionable, and the intentions of the photographers themselves might be similarly questionable – as much as they are lauded for their heroism and bravery, they are also subject ulterior incentives: accolades and money and displays in galleries or museums in which the photographs arguably lose the specificity that might otherwise make them particularly affecting (they exist as one among many depictions of violence in places that are not entirely geared towards education or change).

A similar sentiment was expressed by Michael Slackman, Assistant Managing Editor at the New York Times, who said on the podcast, The Daily, “When the Russian military decided to begin its attack on Ukraine, we were there. From the moment the invasion began, our reporters, photographers, videographers, audio experts were there to bear witness. We want to make sure that if a town hall is hit, if a hospital is hit, that the world knows, and they will know because our people are there putting themselves in harm’s way – not for glory” (16:09). Here, Slackman does not emphasize the gruesomeness of the photos or videos or reports being generated or the change that they might occasion, but the knowledge that they make available to the viewer and the general public – the fact that they make what would be invisible, visible. In short, these photos and reports make it much harder to claim ignorance about violence that is being perpetrated.

Now, while I agree that these pieces of evidence do important work and have (significant) use in the attempted mitigation of violence, I think also that the comments made by Slackman raise some interesting questions regarding what kinds of witnesses the reporters and photographers might be classified as.

Just as Augustine’s Alypius becomes a willing visual witness when he opens his eyes, these photographers are willing witnesses to the violence they photograph. They are thus importantly distinct as witnesses from those who are unwilling or unsuspecting of violence that is presented to them. They are perhaps not entirely voyeurs, but they are a different kind of witness than even the viewers of their war photography: these viewers might be able to help the injustices they bear witness to, but, because war photographers maintain a kind of neutrality when photographing events, they remove their own ability to directly affect change while they are witnessing. In the actual act of their witnessing, war photographers can neither help nor even perhaps (though this is very arguable) learn as much as their viewer – they go on certain assignments precisely because they already know what kinds of atrocities are being committed. They put themselves in harm’s way, but that is precisely what they are seeking out. They go to these places to see and photograph harm’s way and all of the destruction it occasions and all of the people that get caught in its crosshairs. They are witnesses too, same as the people who will view their photographs, but they are willing witnesses surrounded by many more unwilling witnesses upon whom the presence of harm’s way was forced.

Again though, this is not all to render some kind condemning verdict of war photographers. In fact, as mentioned previously, their work might even be considered indispensable as its proliferation requires an awareness of violence from the average citizen (of the U.S. specifically). They also almost certainly learn as they photograph, and, like their viewer, they might too donate after they return or perform other actions that might alleviate the suffering they saw. However, the role of the witness that they take up is a very interesting one, and one that requires the acknowledgement that there is nuance in the act of witnessing and that differentiating between witnesses (between the willing and the unwilling/unsuspecting and between those able to help and those not able to help) is important. In the actual act of bearing witness, war photographers, for instance, might be categorized as willing, unhelpful witnesses (as callous as that might sound).

Works Cited:

  1. Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. Picador, 2003.
  2. Mitchell, W. J. T. Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present. The University of Chicago Press, 2011.
  3. Image: Gérôme, Jean-Léon. “Pollice Verso.” https://phxart.org/arts/pollice-verso/

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