In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag writes:

To designate a hell is not, of course, to tell us anything about how to extract people from that hell, how to moderate hell’s flames. Still, it seems good in itself to acknowledge … one’s sense of how much suffering caused by human wickedness there is in the world we share with others. Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned … when confronted with evidence of what human beings are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood…. No one after a certain age has the right to this kind of innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of ignorance, or amnesia.

Sontag’s essays in Regarding the Pain of Others and On Photography have always impressed me, for — among other reasons — the way she moves effortlessly from the public experience of photography to the way we experience it in our minds, and the connections she makes between the two. I was browsing through both books earlier this evening, in an attempt to better frame some comments on a Vogue Italia photographic essay described by Cooper in Is Rape In Vogue? You Tell Me.

The images in the essay are generating some discussion about — among other things — whether or not they are pornographic, whether or not they glorify rape, whether or not they glorify war, whether or not they have any aesthetic significance.  I could probably pick any of these, choose either side, and make a compelling and passionate case for or against. What I cannot do, however, is rescue the photographs themselves from what they really represent: the exact sort of psychological immaturity, superficiality, and demonstration of ignorance that Sontag is referring to. The photographs — by virtue of their distance from anything that would actually cause us to consider the realities of war — become little more than the kind of cliche aptly illustrated by their worn out title, Make Love, Not War.

It’s not, of course, necessarily true that all photography of war reflect it’s subject realistically, and I wouldn’t make that claim about photography of any subject. But that doesn’t mean choice of subjects doesn’t matter; the photographs are all integrated under one title, showing obviously related themes that were the explicit choices of the artists involved. As with all art, it is the artists’ choices that are fair game for evaluation and critical assessment.

The photographs don’t strike me as being about war at all. If I pitched a tent in my back yard, donned some military fatigues, slapped some mud on my face, and brandished a squirt gun (even a really big squirt gun), you wouldn’t call me a soldier. You might think I was playing soldier, and question my sanity, but that’s about it. The “soldiers” in these photographs seem about as soldierly as me and my tent; in both the actual appearance of the photographs and the way the models are portrayed, they’re only playing soldier too; or not even playing soldier, just playing.

The images of the men, though, are at least not overtly offensive. The men are, in nearly all the photographs, shown as happy, alert, enjoying an experience in the moment. In the women, however, there’s something else, made even more apparent by contrast with the appearance of the men. In photo after photo, the faces of the women suggest one of two conditions: semi-consciousness or pain. From the America’s Top Model mannequin-like pose in image 3, to the distraught and unfocused or visibly pained eyes in almost every other image, the women are most definitely not being portrayed as living the experience in the same way as the men. Disheveled, dirty, confused, and in pain, the women are so succinctly reduced to objects for the amusement of the men that the conclusion that the images glorify rape is a reasonable one, if not a wholly accurate one. At least early-modern attempts to objectify women (as toys for men) usually showed them looking good. Vogue Italia — in treating us to a helping of soft-core, military-style, repetitious, dull, and vaguely annoying porn — can’t be bothered, and instead serves up images that include … yes, you guessed it, mud wrestling….

5 Comments

  1. The Susan Sontag quote is brilliant, though the assertion could well have benefited, even if seems to be glaringly obvious, from some objective support. As a student of history, I agree with Susan Sontag’s assertion, and also the use of the quote in reference to the post. Actually, in regard to many of the posts I’ve stumbled across in the last 6 months.

    I do want to address your summary conclusion that “the conclusion that the images glorify rape is a reasonable one, if not a wholly accurate one.” Especially since the crux of your argument is that the women were disheveled, confused, distraught, in pain, etc. It begged me to actually go look at all of the photographs and what I saw was something very different than the picture you presented.

    On a second look, the women are most certainly almost always cleaner than the men. They are not – subjectively, granted – disheveled, confused, distraught or in pain. The carefree expressions, laughter and smiles seem to contradict that assertion. That is, I’m not sure I see them as distraught except in the one photograph where I think it was required of the model via photographic direction. Vacuous, yes. Distraught no. Both my interpretation of the psychological and emotional state of the women in the photo layout and yours are subjective.

    Rape, on the other hand, is anything but subjective.

    Jon
  2. I have always appreciated Sontag.

    Your points are very well taken. Men of course are very seldom portrayed as anything but smiling happy and virile.

    I graduated from a school of the arts, was admitted there as a matter of fact on a portfolio of make nudes. ( I have published photos in a few magazines in high school and the first two years of college, have yet to ever publish anything taken for purpose of essay or sale on line but one day I may show them to you). My online photographs are personal and often bad. I resisted the digital camera to the point of borrowing ,not purchasing, one for use during my need for one at school making me somewhat of a throwback if not pain in the ass.

    I made the decision to venture into a degree in anthropology and all the rig·ma·role that went with applying to another school at my university after finding that for me photography very seldom, despite it’s intention, provokes action of any kind. Emotion which passes, such as the various emotion which this photo essay provoked among a variety of people, will pass and whatever concerns they have regarding it will be dismissed until the next time.

    The problem of self indulgence and lack of social responsibility in the world of the arts is expressed well in this quote

    “the environment does not effect what I do and it is not affected by what I have done” – Huebler

    Photography though often stunning and provocative for a moment, seldom makes a point (but for a few minutes )without words.

    So to me the discussions like this will be perpetual as conceptual artists live in their own little word often based on only their need be it to shock or for financial gain.

  3. Hi, Jon.

    Thanks very much for your comment — a very thoughtful one at that.

    It’s always a challenge to use a Sontag quote out of it’s original context, not only because of her writing style but because of the complexity of her thinking. I almost didn’t know where to stop, to keep the meaning I wanted to capture intact without quoting the entire paragraph or chapter, or, heck, the whole book. But that’s what I like about her: it’s very nearly impossible to read anything she wrote without thinking about it, and considering how it relates to the rest of her writing and her thought. I like your observation about its relevance to posts you’ve seen; I can only say: same here.

    I’ve thought about your response quite a bit, and probably won’t say more for now, but will definitely work what you said into the second part of the article. How, I don’t yet know … it will be a surprise — for both of us.

    Thanks again,

    Dale

  4. I feel I have made a new friend. Though I’m sense that we see the world through different lenses, I know that my world will be all the more rich through our continued sharing of perspectives and exploration of each others ideas. I am very excited.

    Jon
  5. Thank you, Jon, and I agree with everything you said. I’ve been looking at your Flickr shots now and then also, and enjoying them. Glad to have “met” you and look forward having some great conversations.

    Bye for now,

    Dale

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