Suitcase Notes (Sontag, ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’)




pg. 21 – The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) was the first war to be witnessed (“covered”) in the modern sense: by a corps of professional photographers at the lines of military engagement and in the towns under bombardment, whose work was immediately seen in newspapers and magazines in Spain and abroad.

-Something becomes real – to those who are elsewhere, following it as ‘news’ – by being photographed. But a catastrophe that is experienced will often seem eerily like its representation. The attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001 was described as ‘unreal,’ ‘surreal,’ ‘like a movie,’ in many of the first accounts of those who escaped…After four decades of disaster films, ‘It felt like a movie’ seems to have displaced the way survivors of a catastrophe used to express the short-term unassimilability of what they had gone through: ‘it felt like a dream.’

pg. 22 – Nonstop imagery is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite. Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image.

pg. 23 – ‘Beauty will be convulsive, or it will not be,’ proclaimed Andre Breton.

pg. 26 – For the photography of atrocity, people want the weight of witnessing without the taint of artistry, which is equated with insincerity or mere contrivance. 

pg. 30 – memory has altered the image according to memory’s needs

pg. 38 – Larry Burrows [Vietnam photographer] was the first important photographer to do a whole war in color – another gain in verisimilitude, that is, shock.

pg. 40 – The sufferings most often deemed worthy of representation are those understood to be the product of wrath, divine or human.

pg. 43 – [Jacques] Callot begins with a plate showing the recruitment of soldiers; brings into view ferocious combat, massacre, pillage, and rape, the engines of torture and execution (strappado, gallows tree, firing squad, stake, wheel)

pg. 45 – With Goya, a new standard for responsiveness to suffering enters art……A voice, presumably the artist’s, badgers the viewer: can you bear to look at this? One caption declares: One can’t look (No se puede mirar). Another says: This is bad (Esto es malo). Another retorts: This is worse (Esto es peor). Another shouts: This is the worst! (Esto es lo peor!). Another declaims: Barbarians! (Barbaros!). What madness! (Que locura!), cries another. And another: This is too much! (Fuerta cosa es!). And another: Why? (Por que?).

pg. 49 – …along with that invaluable substitute for war, international sports.

pg. 53 – approaching Sebastopol in his horse-drawn darkroom, Fenton made two exposures…

pg. 55 – we want the photographer to be a spy in the house of love and of death, and those being photographed to be unaware of the camera…

pg. 57 – Only starting with Vietnam is it virtually certain that none of the best-known photographs were setups.

pg. 60 – …six thousand photographs taken between 1975 and 1979 at a secret prison in a former high school in Tuol Sleng, a suburb of Phnom Penh, the killing house of more than fourteen thousand Cambodians charged with being either ‘intellectuals’ or ‘counter-revolutionaries’ – the documentation of this atrocity courtesy of the Khmer Rouge record keepers, who had each sit for a photograph just before being executed….*[this form of documentation] also standard practice in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 40s

pg. 63 – the real thing may not be fearsome enough, and therefore needs to be enhanced; or reenacted more convincingly.

pg. 66 – there is no war without photography…thereby refining the irrepressible identification of the camera and the gun…the same intelligence, whose weapons of annihilation can locate the enemy to the exact second and meter [wrote Junger], that labors to preserve the great historical event in fine detail.

pg. 70 – the more remote or exotic the place, the more likely we are to have full frontal views of the dead and the dying.

pg. 75 – pity can entail a moral judgment if, as Aristotle maintains, pity is considered to be the emotion that we owe only to those enduring undeserved misfortune.

pg. 79 – to be sure, nobody who really thinks about history can take politics altogether seriously

pg. 83 – They weep, in part, because they have seen it many times. People want to weep. Pathos, in the form of a narrative, does not wear out. 

pg. 85 – [society] calls these ideas memories, and that is, over the long run, a fiction. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as collective memory – part of the same family of spurious notions as collective guilt. But there is collective instruction. All memory is individual, unreproducible – it dies with each person.


pg. 89 – the problem is not that people remember through photographs, but that they remember only the photographs. This remembering through photographs eclipses other forms of understanding and remembering.

To remember is, more and more, not to recall a story but to be able to call up a picture.

Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us. 


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