I’ve read this slim volume about 4-5 times now, and each time I reread, there’s more here for me to think about. At the same time, I often forget much of its contents shortly after. It’s an interesting essay and argument style and I think it comes from Susan Sontag’s not being academic in approach. So there’s a wonderful connective musing quality here, that flits around a central thesis, without ever quite cementing things. I think this works wonderfully in terms of finding ways to talk about something that fundamentally works within a space of impasse and impossibility of representation.
So this impossibility of representation, and I am specifically borrowing from Lyotard on this one, is visited upon the subject of war first most, and war photography after most. We are given a number of different well-known war photographs: Robert Capa’s “Death of the Republican Soldier” and Eddie Adams’s “Execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém”. Either or both of these photos probably bring the images themselves to mind. But the whole slim volume begins not with those photos, but with a reading of Virginia Woolf’s nonfiction Three Guineas, which Sontag tells us was unpopular at the time of writing because it dared question whether or not war had value compared to other elements of life. So the book spends a lot of time musing questions of what does it mean to traffic in the pain of others in conflict, of what sense do these photographs, if any, bring to the events they supposedly capture, and what role does the viewer hold in looking at the photographs. And given how she died before really getting to know much about digital photography, we carry these questions with us still.