Regarding the Pain of Others (4 page)

BOOK: Regarding the Pain of Others
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The memorable sites of suffering documented by admired photographers in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s were mostly in Asia and Africa—Werner Bischof’s photographs of famine victims in India, Don McCullin’s pictures of victims of war and famine in Biafra, W. Eugene Smith’s photographs of the victims of the lethal pollution of a Japanese fishing village. The Indian and African famines were not just “natural” disasters; they were preventable; they were crimes of great magnitude. And what happened in Minamata was obviously a crime: the Chisso Corporation knew it was dumping mercury-laden waste into the bay. (After a year of taking pictures, Smith was severely and permanently injured by Chisso goons who were ordered to put an end to his camera inquiry.) But war is the largest crime, and since the mid-1960s, most of the best-known photographers covering wars have thought their role was to show war’s “real” face. The color photographs of tormented Vietnamese villagers and wounded American conscripts that Larry Burrows took and
published, starting in 1962, certainly fortified the outcry against the American presence in Vietnam. (In 1971 Burrows was shot down with three other photographers aboard a U.S. military helicopter flying over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.
to the dismay of many who, like me, had grown up with and been educated by its revelatory pictures of war and of art, closed in 1972.) Burrows was the first important photographer to do a whole war in color—another gain in verisimilitude, that is, shock. In the current political mood, the friendliest to the military in decades, the pictures of wretched hollow-eyed GIs that once seemed subversive of militarism and imperialism may seem inspirational. Their revised subject: ordinary American young men doing their unpleasant, ennobling duty.

Exception made for Europe today, which has claimed the right to opt out of war-making, it remains as true as ever that most people will not question the rationalizations offered by their government for starting or continuing a war. It takes some very peculiar circumstances for a war to become genuinely unpopular. (The prospect of being killed is not necessarily one of them.) When it does, the material gathered by photographers, which they may think of as unmasking the conflict, is of great use. Absent such a protest, the same antiwar photograph may be read as showing pathos, or heroism, admirable heroism, in an unavoidable struggle that can be concluded only by victory or by defeat. The photographer’s intentions do not determine the meaning of the photograph, which will have its own career, blown by the whims and loyalties of the diverse communities that have use for it.


What does it mean to protest suffering, as distinct from acknowledging it?

The iconography of suffering has a long pedigree. The sufferings most often deemed worthy of representation are those understood to be the product of wrath, divine or human. (Suffering from natural causes, such as illness or childbirth, is scantily represented in the history of art; that caused by accident, virtually not at all—as if there were no such thing as suffering by inadvertence or misadventure.) The statue group of the writhing Laocoön and his sons, the innumerable versions in painting and sculpture of the Passion of Christ, and the inexhaustible visual catalogue of the fiendish executions of the Christian martyrs—these are surely intended to move and excite, and to instruct and exemplify. The viewer may commiserate with the sufferer’s pain—and, in the case of the Christian saints, feel admonished or inspired by model faith and fortitude—but these are destinies beyond deploring or contesting.

It seems that the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked. For many centuries, in Christian art, depictions of hell offered both of these elemental satisfactions. On occasion, the pretext might be a Biblical decapitation anecdote (Holofernes, John the Baptist), or massacre yarn (the newborn Hebrew boys, the eleven thousand virgins), or some such, with the status of a real historical event and of an implacable fate. There was also the repertoire of hard-to-look-at cruelties from classical antiquity—the pagan myths, even more than the Christian stories, offer something for every taste. No moral charge attaches to the representation of these cruelties. Just the provocation: can you look at this? There is the satisfaction of being able to look at the image without flinching. There is the pleasure of flinching.

To shudder at Goltzius’s rendering, in his etching
The Dragon Devouring the Companions of Cadmus
(1588), of a man’s face being chewed off his head is very different from shuddering at a photograph of a First World War veteran whose face has been shot away. One horror has its place in a complex subject—figures in a landscape—that displays the artist’s skill of eye and hand. The other is a camera’s record, from very near, of a real person’s unspeakably awful mutilation; that and nothing else. An invented horror can be quite overwhelming. (I, for one, find it difficult to look at Titian’s great painting of the flaying of Marsyas, or indeed at any picture of this subject.) But there is shame as well as shock in looking at the close-up of a real horror. Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it—say, the surgeons at the military hospital where the photograph was taken—or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.

In each instance, the gruesome invites us to be either spectators or cowards, unable to look. Those with the stomach to look are playing a role authorized by many glorious depictions of suffering. Torment, a canonical subject in art, is often represented in painting as a spectacle, something being watched (or ignored) by other people. The implication is: no, it cannot be stopped—and the mingling of inattentive with attentive onlookers underscores this.

The practice of representing atrocious suffering as something to be deplored, and, if possible, stopped, enters the history of images with a specific subject: the sufferings endured by a civilian population at the hands of a victorious army on the rampage. It is a quintessentially secular subject, which emerges in the seventeenth century, when contemporary realignments of power become material for artists. In 1633 Jacques Callot published a suite of eighteen etchings titled
Les Misères et les Malheurs de la Guerre
The Miseries and Misfortunes of War
), which depicted the atrocities committed against civilians by French troops during the invasion and occupation of his native Lorraine in the early 1630s. (Six small etchings on the same subject that Callot had executed prior to the large series appeared in 1635, the year of his death.) The view is wide and deep; these are large scenes with many figures, scenes from a history, and each caption is a sententious comment in verse on the various energies and dooms portrayed in the images. 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), the revenge of the peasants on the soldiers; and ends with a distribution of rewards. The insistence in plate after plate on the savagery of a conquering army is startling and without precedent, but the French soldiers are only the leading malefactors in the orgy of violence, and there is room in Callot’s Christian humanist sensibility not just to mourn the end of the independent Duchy of Lorraine but to record the postwar plight of destitute soldiers who squat on the side of a road begging for alms.

Callot had his successors, such as Hans Ulrich Franck, a minor German artist, who, in 1643, toward the end of the Thirty Years’ War, began making what would amount to (by 1656) twenty-five etchings depicting soldiers killing peasants. But the preeminent concentration on the horrors of war and the vileness of soldiers run amok is Goya’s, in the early nineteenth century.
Los Desastres de la Guerra
The Disasters of War
), a numbered sequence of eighty-three etchings made between 1810 and 1820 (and first published, all but three plates, in 1863, thirty-five years after his death), depicts the atrocities perpetrated by Napoleon’s soldiers who invaded Spain in 1808 to quell the insurrection against French rule. Goya’s images move the viewer close to the horror. All the trappings of the spectacular have been eliminated: the landscape is an atmosphere, a darkness, barely sketched in. War is not a spectacle. And Goya’s print series is not a narrative: each image, captioned with a brief phrase lamenting the wickedness of the invaders and the monstrousness of the suffering they inflicted, stands independently of the others. The cumulative effect is devastating.

The ghoulish cruelties in
The Disasters of War
are meant to awaken, shock, wound the viewer. Goya’s art, like Dostoyevsky’s, seems a turning point in the history of moral feelings and of sorrow—as deep, as original, as demanding. With Goya, a new standard for responsiveness to suffering enters art. (And new subjects for fellow-feeling: as in, for example, his painting of an injured laborer being carried away from a building site.) The account of war’s cruelties is fashioned as an assault on the sensibility of the viewer. The expressive phrases in script below each image comment on the provocation. While the image, like every image, is an invitation to look, the caption, more often than not, insists on the difficulty of doing just that. 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! (
). What madness! (
Que locura!
), cries another. And another: This is too much! (
Fuerte cosa es!
). And another: Why? (
Por qué?

The caption of a photograph is traditionally neutral informative: a date, a place, names. A reconnaissance photograph from the First World War (the first war in which cameras were used extensively for military intelligence) was unlikely to be captioned “Can’t wait to overrun this!” or the X-ray of a multiple fracture to be annotated “Patient will probably have a limp!” Nor should there be a need to speak for the photograph in the photographer’s voice, offering assurances of the image’s veracity, as Goya does in
The Disasters of War,
writing beneath one image: I saw this (
Yo lo ví
). And beneath another: This is the truth (
Esto es lo verdadero
). Of course the photographer saw it. And unless there’s been some tampering or misrepresenting, it is the truth.

Ordinary language fixes the difference between handmade images like Goya’s and photographs by the convention that artists “make” drawings and paintings while photographers “take” photographs. But the photographic image, even to the extent that it is a trace (not a construction made out of disparate photographic traces), cannot be simply a transparency of something that happened. It is always the image that someone chose; to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude. Moreover, fiddling with pictures long antedates the era of digital photography and Photoshop manipulations: it has always been possible for a photograph to misrepresent. A painting or drawing is judged a fake when it turns out not to be by the artist to whom it had been attributed. A photograph—or a filmed document available on television or the internet—is judged a fake when it turns out to be deceiving the viewer about the scene it purports to depict.

That the atrocities perpetrated by the French soldiers in Spain didn’t happen exactly as pictured—say, that the victim didn’t look just so, that it didn’t happen next to a tree—hardly disqualifies
The Disasters of War.
Goya’s images are a synthesis. They claim: things
this happened. In contrast, a single photograph or filmstrip claims to represent exactly what was before the camera’s lens. A photograph is supposed not to evoke but to show. That is why photographs, unlike handmade images, can count as evidence. But evidence of what? The suspicion that Capa’s “Death of a Republican Soldier”—titled “The Falling Soldier” in the authoritative compilation of Capa’s work—may not show what it is said to show (one hypothesis is that it records a training exercise near the front line) continues to haunt discussions of war photography. Everyone is a literalist when it comes to photographs.

*   *   *

endured in war are so widely disseminated now that it is easy to forget how recently such images became what is expected from photographers of note. Historically, photographers have offered mostly positive images of the warrior’s trade, and of the satisfactions of starting a war or continuing to fight one. If governments had their way, war photography, like most war poetry, would drum up support for soldiers’ sacrifice.

Indeed, war photography begins with such a mission, such a disgrace. The war was the Crimean War, and the photographer, Roger Fenton, invariably called the first war photographer, was no less than that war’s “official” photographer, having been sent to the Crimea in early 1855 by the British government at the instigation of Prince Albert. Acknowledging the need to counteract the alarming printed accounts of the unanticipated risks and privations endured by the British soldiers dispatched there the previous year, the government had invited a well-known professional photographer to give another, more positive impression of the increasingly unpopular war.

Edmund Gosse, in
Father and Son
(1907), his memoir of a mid-nineteenth-century English childhood, relates how the Crimean War penetrated even his stringently pious, unworldly family, which belonged to an evangelical sect called the Plymouth Brethren:

The declaration of war with Russia brought the first breath of outside life into our Calvinist cloister. My parents took in a daily newspaper, which they had never done before, and events in picturesque places, which my Father and I looked out on the map, were eagerly discussed.

BOOK: Regarding the Pain of Others
7.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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