Week 8 Reflection

“An image is drained of it’s force by the way it is used, where and how often it is seen”.

Sontag, 2003 [1]

This week we are reminded of this quote from Susan Sontag. We know Sontag is a wish woman where photography is concerned, her books are part of the photography canon. But is she right?

Intuitively, we know there is some truth in this. Compassion fatigue is a real phenomenon and we all know that photographs of suffering and charity adverts depicting suffering, have less emotional impact than they did at first sight. But does that mean that they are actually drained of force?

If we understand Sontag’s statement as referring to the visceral impact of a photograph, to its ability to reach into our guts and force a response, she is almost certainly right. If we see a shocking photograph, it does become less shocking each time. In psychological terms, this is the deployment of a defence mechanism, expanding the scope of our lived experiences and assimilating them into those activities with which we are familiar and with which we can cope.[2]

Seeing a distressing picture of suffering or degradation is at first a shock, we did not know this happened and it is a shock to find out. Thereafter, the shock is not there, but the knowledge remains. This is where Sontag’s statement starts to unravel. Repeated viewing of a disturbing picture will almost certainly, dull the emotional impact. But the knowledge which that picture imparts will remain or be enhanced.

So where is the force of a picture? To produce a one-off emotional response, or to impart knowledge which will lead to action? Campaigns for change do not succeed because viewers of their material are reduced to tears by it. Campaigns succeed when people understand the information they are given, donate money, offer their time and become involved in the long term. A shocking image may be useful to gain attention, but where change is required, it is the long term that matters.

So whilst Sontag is correct at a superficial level, her statement should be no deterrent to the repeated use of a shocking image. The image may no longer shock, but it does serve as an anchor of understanding for a situation in the real world.


[1]Sontag, S, (2003) Regarding The Pain Of Others, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
[2] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/toc/14676494/1998/66/6
Special issue [on defense mechanisms], Journal of Personality (1998), 66 (6): 879–1157

Featured image: Rubbish on the beach near Beirut ©The Independent