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….