Regarding the Pain of Others (2 page)

BOOK: Regarding the Pain of Others
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In fact, there are many uses of the innumerable opportunities a modern life supplies for regarding—at a distance, through the medium of photography—other people’s pain. Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen. Who can forget the three color pictures by Tyler Hicks that
The New York Times
ran across the upper half of the first page of its daily section devoted to America’s new war, “A Nation Challenged,” on November 13, 2001? The triptych depicted the fate of a wounded Taliban soldier in uniform who had been found in a ditch by Northern Alliance soldiers advancing toward Kabul. First panel: being dragged on his back by two of his captors—one has grabbed an arm, the other a leg—along a rocky road. Second panel (the camera is very near): surrounded, gazing up in terror as he is being pulled to his feet. Third panel: at the moment of death, supine with arms outstretched and knees bent, naked and bloodied from the waist down, being finished off by the military mob that has gathered to butcher him. An ample reservoir of stoicism is needed to get through the great newspaper of record each morning, given the likelihood of seeing photographs that could make you cry. And the pity and disgust that pictures like Hicks’s inspire should not distract you from asking what pictures, whose cruelties, whose deaths are
not
being shown.

*   *   *

F
OR A LONG TIME
some people believed that if the horror could be made vivid enough, most people would finally take in the outrageousness, the insanity of war.

Fourteen years before Woolf published
Three Guineas
—in 1924, on the tenth anniversary of the national mobilization in Germany for the First World War—the conscientious objector Ernst Friedrich published his
Krieg dem Kriege!
(
War Against War!
). This is photography as shock therapy: an album of more than one hundred and eighty photographs mostly drawn from German military and medical archives, many of which were deemed un-publishable by government censors while the war was on. The book starts with pictures of toy soldiers, toy cannons, and other delights of male children everywhere, and concludes with pictures taken in military cemeteries. Between the toys and the graves, the reader has an excruciating photo-tour of four years of ruin, slaughter, and degradation: pages of wrecked and plundered churches and castles, obliterated villages, ravaged forests, torpedoed passenger steamers, shattered vehicles, hanged conscientious objectors, half-naked prostitutes in military brothels, soldiers in death agonies after a poison-gas attack, skeletal Armenian children. Almost all the sequences in
War Against War!
are difficult to look at, notably the pictures of dead soldiers belonging to the various armies putrefying in heaps on fields and roads and in the front-line trenches. But surely the most unbearable pages in this book, the whole of which was designed to horrify and demoralize, are in the section titled “The Face of War,” twenty-four close-ups of soldiers with huge facial wounds. And Friedrich did not make the mistake of supposing that heartrending, stomach-turning pictures would simply speak for themselves. Each photograph has an impassioned caption in four languages (German, French, Dutch, and English), and the wickedness of militarist ideology is excoriated and mocked on every page. Immediately denounced by the government and by veterans’ and other patriotic organizations—in some cities the police raided bookstores, and lawsuits were brought against the public display of the photographs—Friedrich’s declaration of war against war was acclaimed by left-wing writers, artists, and intellectuals, as well as by the constituencies of the numerous antiwar leagues, who predicted that the book would have a decisive influence on public opinion. By 1930,
War Against War!
had gone through ten editions in Germany and been translated into many languages.

In 1938, the year of Woolf’s
Three Guineas,
the great French director Abel Gance featured in close-up some of the mostly hidden population of hideously disfigured ex-combatants—
les gueules cassées
(“the broken mugs”) they were nicknamed in French—at the climax of his new
J’accuse.
(Gance had made an earlier, primitive version of his incomparable antiwar film, with the same hallowed title, in 1918–19.) As in the final section of Friedrich’s book, Gance’s film ends in a new military cemetery, not just to remind us of how many millions of young men were sacrificed to militarism and ineptitude between 1914 and 1918 in the war cheered on as “the war to end all wars,” but to advance the sacred judgment these dead would surely bring against Europe’s politicians and generals could they know that, twenty years later, another war was imminent.
“Morts de Verdun, levez-vous!”
(Rise, dead of Verdun!), cries the deranged veteran who is the protagonist of the film, and he repeats his summons in German and in English: “Your sacrifices were in vain!” And the vast mortuary plain disgorges its multitudes, an army of shambling ghosts in rotted uniforms with mutilated faces, who rise from their graves and set out in all directions, causing mass panic among the populace already mobilized for a new pan-European war. “Fill your eyes with this horror! It is the only thing that can stop you!” the madman cries to the fleeing multitudes of the living, who reward him with a martyr’s death, after which he joins his dead comrades: a sea of impassive ghosts overrunning the cowering future combatants and victims of
la guerre de demain.
War beaten back by apocalypse.

And the following year the war came.

2

Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience, the cumulative offering by more than a century and a half’s worth of those professional, specialized tourists known as journalists. Wars are now also living room sights and sounds. Information about what is happening elsewhere, called “news,” features conflict and violence—“If it bleeds, it leads” runs the venerable guideline of tabloids and twenty-four-hour headline news shows—to which the response is compassion, or indignation, or titillation, or approval, as each misery heaves into view.

How to respond to the steadily increasing flow of information about the agonies of war was already an issue in the late nineteenth century. In 1899, Gustave Moynier, the first president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, wrote:

We now know what happens every day throughout the whole world … the descriptions given by daily journalists put, as it were, those in agony on fields of battle under the eyes of [newspaper] readers and their cries resonate in their ears …

Moynier was thinking of the soaring casualties of combatants on all sides, whose sufferings the Red Cross was founded to succor impartially. The killing power of armies in battle had been raised to a new magnitude by weapons introduced shortly after the Crimean War (1854–56), such as the breech-loading rifle and the machine gun. But though the agonies of the battlefield had become present as never before to those who would only read about them in the press, it was obviously an exaggeration, in 1899, to say that one knew what happened “every day throughout the whole world.” And, though the sufferings endured in faraway wars now do assault our eyes and ears even as they happen, it is still an exaggeration. What is called in news parlance “the world”—“You give us twenty-two minutes, we’ll give you the world,” one radio network intones several times an hour—is (unlike the world) a very small place, both geographically and thematically, and what is thought worth knowing about it is expected to be transmitted tersely and emphatically.

Awareness of the suffering that accumulates in a select number of wars happening elsewhere is something constructed. Principally in the form that is registered by cameras, it flares up, is shared by many people, and fades from view. In contrast to a written account—which, depending on its complexity of thought, reference, and vocabulary, is pitched at a larger or smaller readership—a photograph has only one language and is destined potentially for all.

In the first important wars of which there are accounts by photographers, the Crimean War and the American Civil War, and in every other war until the First World War, combat itself was beyond the camera’s ken. As for the war photographs published between 1914 and 1918, nearly all anonymous, they were—insofar as they did convey something of the terrors and the devastation—generally in the epic mode, and were usually depictions of an aftermath: the corpse-strewn or lunar landscapes left by trench warfare; the gutted French villages the war had passed through. The photographic monitoring of war as we know it had to wait a few more years for a radical upgrade of professional equipment: lightweight cameras, such as the Leica, using 35-mm film that could be exposed thirty-six times before the camera needed to be reloaded. Pictures could now be taken in the thick of battle, military censorship permitting, and civilian victims and exhausted, begrimed soldiers studied up close. 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. The war America waged in Vietnam, the first to be witnessed day after day by television cameras, introduced the home front to new tele-intimacy with death and destruction. Ever since, battles and massacres filmed as they unfold have been a routine ingredient of the ceaseless flow of domestic, small-screen entertainment. Creating a perch for a particular conflict in the consciousness of viewers exposed to dramas from everywhere requires the daily diffusion and rediffusion of snippets of footage about the conflict. The understanding of war among people who have not experienced war is now chiefly a product of the impact of these images.

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 September 11, 2001, was described as “unreal,” “surreal,” “like a movie,” in many of the first accounts of those who escaped from the towers or watched from nearby. (After four decades of big-budget Hollywood 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.”)

Nonstop imagery (television, streaming video, movies) 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. In an era of information overload, the photograph provides a quick way of apprehending something and a compact form for memorizing it. The photograph is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb. Each of us mentally stocks hundreds of photographs, subject to instant recall. Cite the most famous photograph taken during the Spanish Civil War, the Republican soldier “shot” by Robert Capa’s camera at the same moment he is hit by an enemy bullet, and virtually everyone who has heard of that war can summon to mind the grainy black-and-white image of a man in a white shirt with rolled-up sleeves collapsing backward on a hillock, his right arm flung behind him as his rifle leaves his grip; about to fall, dead, onto his own shadow.

It is a shocking image, and that is the point. Conscripted as part of journalism, images were expected to arrest attention, startle, surprise. As the old advertising slogan of
Paris Match,
founded in 1949, had it: “The weight of words, the shock of photos.” The hunt for more dramatic (as they’re often described) images drives the photographic enterprise, and is part of the normality of a culture in which shock has become a leading stimulus of consumption and source of value. “Beauty will be convulsive, or it will not be,” proclaimed André Breton. He called this aesthetic ideal “surrealist,” but in a culture radically revamped by the ascendancy of mercantile values, to ask that images be jarring, clamorous, eye-opening seems like elementary realism as well as good business sense. How else to get attention for one’s product or one’s art? How else to make a dent when there is incessant exposure to images, and overexposure to a handful of images seen again and again? The image as shock and the image as cliché are two aspects of the same presence. Sixty-five years ago, all photographs were novelties to some degree. (It would have been inconceivable to Woolf—who did appear on the cover of
Time
in 1937—that one day her face would become a much-reproduced image on T-shirts, coffee mugs, book bags, refrigerator magnets, mouse pads.) Atrocity photographs were scarce in the winter of 1936–37: the depiction of war’s horrors in the photographs Woolf evokes in
Three Guineas
seemed almost like clandestine knowledge. Our situation is altogether different. The ultra-familiar, ultra-celebrated image—of an agony, of ruin—is an unavoidable feature of our camera-mediated knowledge of war.

*   *   *

E
VER SINCE CAMERAS
were invented in 1839, photography has kept company with death. Because an image produced with a camera is, literally, a trace of something brought before the lens, photographs were superior to any painting as a memento of the vanished past and the dear departed. To seize death in the making was another matter: the camera’s reach remained limited as long as it had to be lugged about, set down, steadied. But once the camera was emancipated from the tripod, truly portable, and equipped with a range finder and a variety of lenses that permitted unprecedented feats of close observation from a distant vantage point, picture-taking acquired an immediacy and authority greater than any verbal account in conveying the horror of mass-produced death. If there was one year when the power of photographs to define, not merely record, the most abominable realities trumped all the complex narratives, surely it was 1945, with the pictures taken in April and early May at Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, and Dachau in the first days after the camps were liberated, and those taken by Japanese witnesses such as Yosuke Yamahata in the days following the incineration of the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August.

BOOK: Regarding the Pain of Others
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