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SONTAG AND AZOULAY
For Susan Sontag, in contrast to Michael Fried, the difference in approach to reading photography is clearest in their interpretations of Jeff Wall’s Dead Troops Talk. Fried actually quotes Sontag’sRegarding the Pain of Others in the introductory chapter to Why Photography Matters. In her analysis of the piece, Sontag writes “Engulfed by the image, which is so accusatory, we could fantasize that the soldiers might turn and talk to us. But no, no one is looking out of the picture. There’s no threat of protest. They are not about to yell at us to bring a halt to that abomination which is war… These dead are supremely uninterested in the living: in those who took their lives; in witnesses – and in us. Why should they seek our gaze? What would they have to say to us? ‘We’… don’t understand. We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand, can’t imagine.” Sontag talks about Dead Troops and its power in a much wider photographic context than Fried and just “art photography.” Sontag is not considering photography as contemporary art, and is not interested in photographs that exist solely for museum and gallery walls. Her fascination with photography is concerned with its mass dissemination and effect on mass culture.
In Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag takes issue with two ideas she previously wrote about in earlier essays. The first being that public attention is steered by media, or the “CNN effect” as she calls it. Photographs of events shape “what catastrophes and crises we pay attention to, what we care about, and ultimately what evaluations are attached to these conflicts.” (p.105)
The second idea being “that in a world saturated, no, hyper-saturated with images, that that should matter have a diminishing effect: we become callous.” (p.105)
Sontag writes that the main vehicle in which the public gets its news, television. “Images shown on television are by definition images of which, sooner or later, one tires. The whole point of television is that one can switch channels, that it is normal to switch channels, to become restless, bored. Consumers droop. They need to be stimulated, jump-started, again and again. Content is no more than one of these stimulants.” (p. 106)
The idea Sontag touches on about a growing sense of apathy through the numbing effect that television provides, in its ability to let us turn away or change the channel, and its presentation of fact and fiction in a manner that we may find either entertaining reminds me of a parable by Soren Kierkegaard:
“THE HAPPY CONFLAGRATION – What happens to those who try to warn the present age?
It happens that a fire broke out backstage in a theater. The clown came out to inform the public. They thought it was just a jest and applauded. He repeated his warning, they shouted even louder. So I think the world will come to an end amid general applause from all the wits, who believe that it is a joke.”
After a poignant first hand account of her upbringing in Israel, Arielle Azoulay writes in The Civil Contract of Photography that the “theory of photography proposed in this book is founded on a new ontological-political understanding of photography.” (p. 23) The term “ontological-political” understanding is an interesting one to think about and makes sense as to why Azoulay takes issue with Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others. To have an ontological understanding in any sense, one needs to consider the relationship to the photograph between the photographer and the photographed subject, and between the photographed subject and the spectator. Not just the spectator and photographic object as Azoulay felt many were too focused on. Azoulay wants to explore the ethical and political implications photographs carry with them that are just as inherent in them as the ontological qualities of photographs that interested Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin.
Azoulay believes that “the photographic act and the space of photographic relations, treats everyone the same (in as much as everyone in Israel – Jewish and Palestinian – has more or less equal access to being photographed and to making claims for themselves via photography and allows us to overcome the limits of state declared citizenship by declaring everyone a ‘citizen of photography.’ Azoulay argues therefore, that we are all governed equally under the modern visual regime of photography.” (note on p.25)
“When the photographed persons address me, claiming their citizenship in photography, they cease to appear as stateless or as enemies, the manners in which the sovereign regime strives to construct them. They call on me to recognize and restore their citizenship through my viewing.” In comparison with Sontag, whom Azoulay implies has a tendency to address the photograph instead of the person that is the photographed subject, Azoulay’s thoughts about these photographic images describe the ways in which they are viewed by spectators as well as the subject’s desire to address the viewer through them.
Azoulay ponders “What is the foundation of the gaze I might turn back toward them? Is it my gaze alone, or is it their demand directed toward the civil position I occupy?” Azoulay uses the example of a 1982 photograph by Anat Saragusti, taken as a shop keeper in the town of Hebron holding up the lock to his shop, recently clipped by Israeli police in order to break up a strike. The shop keeper has a gaze that locks on with whoever views the photograph and with and outstretched hand holds up a broken lock for further examination. “When the Hebron merchant stands up in front of the camera, lock in hand, he isn’t demanding remuneration for the broken lock. His stance is an insistent refusal to accept the noncitizen status assigned him by the governing power and a demand for participation in a sphere of political relations within which his claims can be heard and acknowledged.”