Research point – Susan Sontag: “Compassion fatique”

Photojournalism is a term used to identify news imagery. It is often seen (or mistaken) as a factual way of using photography to inform the public of events and happenings across the world.

Do you think images of war are necessary to provoke change? Do you agree with Sontag’s earlier view that horrific images of war numb viewers’ responses? Read your answer again when you’ve read the next section on aftermath photography and note whether your view has changed. 

Critical viewpoint: Compassion fatigue – Susan Sontag
“In these last decades “concerned” photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.” (Sontag, 1979, p.21)

Paul Mason, journalist for The Guardian, argues that ‘pictures of war should not only show us what bodies look like. They should educate us about the absurdities, the accidents and pointless killing”.  Mason comments that “probably the most famous war photograph of all is of  the Vietnamese girl lacerated by a US Napalm strike in 1972”.

Vietnam girl

However Richard Nixon doubted authenticity of the image. Audio tapes released reveal the US president saying to his chief of staff Bob Haldeman, “I’m wondering if that was fixed.” “Could have been,” replies Haldeman. This brings me back to the previous exercise “Eyewitnesses” and thoughts about can we believe what we see?  In this case yes we can.

Kim phuc

Kim Phuc 43 years on

Personally I struggle to look at the horrific images of war. I do think they are necessary, albeit in fewer numbers. We are constantly bombarded with pictures  via the public’s attempts to capture the moment through social media. With so many of these amateur citizen shots (some of which are of quality), the impact can be diluted, however I don’t feel that they deaden my conscience or numb my response. The more I see of these images thrust upon me via the press, television news, social media etc. I feel helpless to assist and yes it is depressing and upsetting, but a necessary evil.

I should imagine that being a war photographer, take Don McCullin for example, one must get “used to” seeing these horrific scenes and yet they continue to visit such dangerous sites and risk their lives on a daily basis.  Therefore they must believe they make a difference. Or, is it just a case of business as usual, a paid job that they are good at.  I do not agree with Sontag’s view, but maybe she was implying that photography is not sufficiently effective enough to support action against war, provoke change or bring peace.

References [accessed 25th May 2016] [accessed 25th May 2016]
Mason P (2014) . Horrific pictures of dead bodies won’t stop wars. The Guardian [online]. 23rd Nov, 2014. [accessed 25th may 2016]