Photography and/as Ethics

Michael Fried’s Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before,  Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, and Ariella Azoulay’s The Civil Contract of Photography address the role of the spectator. For Fried, the spectator is not considered. Fried excludes the viewer, the viewer’s relationship to the image, rejects theatricality and embraces exclusion. For Sontag and Azoulay, the role of the spectator, the implicit responsibility of viewing, and the subjective experience, is integral. Azoulay expands on Sontag’s writing by considering the photographed subject as part of the viewing equation.

Sontag addresses “two widespread ideas” about the impact of photography: “The first idea is that public attention is steered by the attentions of the media. …When there are photographs, a war becomes “real”. The second idea, “in a world …hyper-saturated with images, those that should matter have a diminishing effect.” (104).

Sontag questions her original claim: “while an event known through photographs certainly becomes more real than it would have been had one never seen the photographs, after repeated exposure it also becomes less real.” (106).

This overexposure is a result of mass media, specifically television. “An image is drained of its force by the way it is used, where and how often it is seen.” (104). “A more reflective engagement with content would require a certain intensity of awareness.”

This critique of the oversaturation of “everydays horrors: dates back to Wordworth’s (1800) and Baudeliare (1860) prior to newspaper even carrying photographs:

It is impossible to glance through any newspaper, no matter what the day, the month or the year, without finding on every line the most frightful traces of human perversity, together with the most astonishing boasts of probity, charity, and benevolence and the most brazen statements regarding the progress of civilization. Every journal, from the first line to the last, is nothing but a tissue of horrors. Wars, crimes, thefts, lecheries, tortures, the evil deeds of princes, of nations, of private individuals; an orgy of universal atrocity. And it is with this loathsome appetizer that civilized man daily washes down his morning repast. Everything in this world oozes crime: the newspaper, the street wall, and the human countenance. I am unable to comprehend how a man of honor could take a newspaper in his hands without a shudder of disgust (107).

For the Sontag reading, there are certain quotations to address that are interesting to analysis, also to question how Azoulay would respond.

“These images still perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable doing… Don’t forget.” How do you control this imagery? Sontag and Azoulay both address this. Azoulay states that you have to stop watching and start looking, however to go back to Sontag, this perceived overabundance (perceived because what we see is mediated, dictated by our collective viewing habits of suffering) “If we could do something about what the images show, we might not care as much about these issues.” momento mori – objects of contemplation to deepen one’s sense of reality

The question of war photographs/”photojournalist” place in a gallery or art setting: “It seems exploitative to look at harrowing photographs of other people’s pain in an art gallery. (Sontag) The viewing situation can change how the photographs are considered. If photographs of this nature that are not constructed, like those of Luc Delahaye and Jeff Wall, have a place in the art gallery? One example was the exhibition of photographs in New York after 9/11 of the events of 9/11, September 11 Photo Project with photographs taken by amateurs and also professionals, including James Nachtwey.

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Azoulay notes that Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, and Susan Sontag were the first to fall prey to a kind of “image fatigue”; they simply stopped looking. Azoulay that this does happens, however, her book attempts to combat this “image fatigue” by adding the photographed subject and their gaze into the equation. The gaze is a means for action. Azoulay “takes into account all the participants in photographic acts – camera, photographer, photographed subject, and spectator – approaching the photograph (and its meaning) as an unintentional effect of the encounter between all of these.”

Sontag’s position addresses a broader sense on the state of viewing in photography. At the time Regarding the Pain of Others was published, Sontag’s points were and some still are valid. Because Azoulay was engrossed in a conflict at the time of writing the book, she had to consider the role of the photographed subject. I do not see Sontag as ignoring the photographed subject, but I think at the time, it was as important to address that. Also, the audience that Sontag addresses is broader than that of Azoulay’s.

Reading that Azoulay wrote her book during ongoing political conflict, being engrossed in the situation where one cannot ignore the imagery, affected her point of view and effects my reading of the book. How is this point of view is expressed for other photographs? Digging into the book should give a somewhat broader stance, but gleaming from the introduction her argument hinges on photographs of people, someone that can return the gaze, and also happen to be in conflict and/or politically charged zones, and specifically in Israeli conflict. How does Azoulay’s thesis apply to the photographs of Matthew Brady, Vietnam war photographs, war torn landscapes, and current issues that affect the United States? Her viewpoint could only hinge on this International issue and not be “universal”. The theories applied to contemporary practices in war photography would have more of an impact. With Gillian Laub introduction, there is a critiquing of images outside of the conflict images, i.e., the photographs of Laub’s grandparents, but she relates it to Testimony, which is a result of this conflict area. So after reading, Michael Fried’s and Susan Sontag’s analysis of Jeff Wall’s Dead Troops Talk (A Vision After an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986) 1992, Ariella Azoulay’s stance would add another dimension. Since Azoulay considers the photographed subject as part of an image, Azoulay would answer the questions Sontag’s raised about the image: “Why should they seek our gaze? What should they have to say to us?”


An-My Lê’s childhood in Vietnam, like Azoulay, was shaped by war and she did not realize the full extent it had on her until she came to the United States. Her work is inspired by this experience with war. The series Small Wars came about as a way for Le to explore this past event that shaped her life. This image titled Rescue shows a play between formal traditions of documentary and staged photography. Lê considers herself to be a landscape photographer. She is interested in how the landscape is utilized, as a place to contemplate war, and in precursors and aftermath of war not in the politics that surround war. She has always found military an incredible enterprise and this overwhelming force. “People tend to look at military in black and white; it is not like that at all, how do you approach a subject and explore it in a complicated way. That’s what I’m trying to do.” An-My Lê creates images that border on informative and the subjective and is interested in the tension this creates.


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