Susan Sontag Chapter Two: A history of war photography and discussions of validity

In chapter two of Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag chronologically organizes the progression of war photography and argues that viewers project meaning onto photo based on memory, while photographers are unbiased and fair-minded witnesses.

The Spanish War (1936-39) was the first to be “witnessed” in the modern sense. Sontag quotes Robert Capa’s, Fallen Soldier (Fig. 1), as a standard image of war, defined by its exaggeration and impact (memory). War imagery does exaggerate to the ignorant viewer because it only shows the aftermath. This shock became a normal part of the culture, know as photographic enterprise. “Part of the normality of a culture in which shock has become a leading stimulus of consumption” (P. 20). Photographs replaced the indescribable with authority greater than any verbal account. Between 1929-38 picture stories featured in magazines further sensationalized the photographer as a unbiased hero.


(Fig. 1 Robert Capa, The Falling Soldier, September 5, 1936)

This mid-action, eye-witnesses flare for the dramatic become a normalization. Sontag uses David Seymour’s Land distribution meeting, Estremadura, Spain (Fig. 2) to show the effect this has on a viewers perception of the photograph. This pieces is commonly misconstrued by the viewer’s memory. The viewer may project a tragic scene of a mother holding her child possibly squinting to watch a bomb because of their memory surrounding the Spanish Civil War. In reality, the picture shows an outdoor political meeting months before the war started (P. 26). Sontag also describes ‘local memory’ sighting Here is New York, a show that featured photos of 9/11 taken by professionals and bystanders together and anonymously. This validates Sontag’s point about the projection of memory onto a seemingly eye witness account.


(Fig. 2 David ‘Chim’ Seymour, Land distribution meeting, Estremadura, Spain, 1936

Questions to consider:

How does social media affect our view on war?

How does it progress war photography?

Are we desensitized by the amount of news we consume?


Susan Montag, Regarding the Pain of Others

More from Robert Capa’s War Portfolio

Land distribution meeting, Estremadura, Spain



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