Thursday, November 29, 2007

Regarding the pain of Others - Susan Sontag

Television Channel across the world, celebrated the hanging of Saddam Hussain by repeatedly telecasting the last few minutes including the hanging process. These images continue to be in the mind of viewers for few years. I still recollect the photograph of the hanging of Gen Najibulla of Afghanistan. Naked and castrated, hanging from a tree in a cold winter morning !!

Susan Sontags new book is on the way we see, understand and react to the world of war and cruelty across the world. In continuation to her book 'on photography' here too she looks at the subject by visual images and our interest and understanding of the "pain". She discusses many issues related to war, genocide and history. The discussion is deep and covers many aspects from literature, mythology and history. Her interpretation are original, her commentary on the writings of others Wolf in detail are very appropriate.

War is a manly affair. It is participated, celebrated and 'enjoyed' by men. The only participation ( exceptions notwithstanding ) of women in this spectacle are as the victims. No war story is complete without the description of the atrocities against women and the humiliation. Naturally, war and related stories are viewed, discussed and participated by men.

From the early ages, war, pain and suffering associated with war are always figured in the cultural world. Be it the epics or the mythical stories, they are all on this. More than the stories of winning, we wanted to tell / hear the stories of our sufferings and pain.

Susan Sontag says our interest in watching the pain of others are voyeuristic. We derive a pleasure in watching the suffering of others and ourselves. We celebrate the pain, we talk about them that we talk about the good times we had. It is happening elsewhere, not in my place, I'm not participating in it , but I like to see the sufferings, the pain and the destruction.

It used to be the paintings which initially captured the gruesome images of wars and devastation. Most of them were glorified and exaggerated and was always an after effect. They were the result of imagination and hearsay. With few exceptions such as Guernica , not many of them did not shock the world.

With the invention of photography, there was more sanctity to the images. There was a feeling of "truth" in them as these were shot at real locations. These weren't imagination , but actual. As the technology progressed, with color photography, movies and television we had the real life stories available at real time. Everything related to war and sufferings became visual.

These techniques have been used effectively by the propagandist. Images of devastation, murder and atrocities are used for gathering support. Iraq, Bosnian , Vietnam etc are examples. Some of them are also displayed proudly to celebrate , felling of the statue of Lenin, Saddam, Flag on Berlin, Capture of enemy Generals etc. There are also examples of exhibitionism and demonstration as warning signal to your enemy.

There are also instances of setting up the images to satisfy your viewers and readers. Some of the earlier photography with re-arranged skeletons and others were a clear arranged shoot. The famous Falling Soldier itself was under the scanner.

The whole things changed after the introduction of moving pictures. Images from World Wars , the Vietnam war and the subsequent movie portraits of these wars had given new viewing opportunity to the people. Here there is nothing left to your imagination, there is no ambiguity about the pre , post instances as in the case of photography. During the first Gulfwar, this has become a real-time broadcast of war , like a sports event. Kargil war made us count heads in terms of casualties at both sides. We stopped the counting in the new Iraq war ( there are occasional US Soldier Casualties published).

Movies always taken inspiration from these stories and events. Exaggerated portrayal of individuals and community sufferings were the theme for many a movies. Such movies, and literary works ( usually comes out after the events takes place , Nazi concentration Camps for eg. ) is received as classics.

There is also a discussion about the increasing immunity level of the reader/viewer. Some of the images does not shock you any more. Some of the figures of death passes of casually, without much hype. We as individual and as society is getting immune to such news. This has become commonplace.

People also like to remember and re-live these days. There are multiple war memorials, Nazi concentration camps and notorious jails of torture retained as historical museums. People find some sort of satisfaction in visiting such places and discussing the events.

The question is what are we learning from these ? Does these images teach you something ? Or is this only to satisfy the voyeur in you ?

A very compelling and though provoking book by Susan Sontag. This book does not provide you with any answers. I like the closing remarks, there are realities , which no picture can convey....
Written by : Susan Sontag
Picador Books
124 Pages

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