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The Power of Images: The Impact of Photographs on Perceptions of Global Suffering

Aug 3, 2023 | 0 comments

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Aug 3, 2023 | Essays | 0 comments

Susan Sontag: Regarding The Pain Of Others

Susan Sontag in her book, regarding the pain of others poses and analyses the impact that photographs and pictures have on society especially when it comes to images of war. Journalists and photographers are often drawn to images of starving children in much the same way the viewers are. Sontag is concerned that such images though aiming at teaching us about suffering may, in turn, numb our feelings to the point that they they need to become entertainment rather than lessons. Over time, in the past few decades concern has been generated without the media portrays the suffering of others around the globe. Sontag is concerned that those who live in privileged countries such as America, where they have been lucky enough not to experience war, cannot relate to the suffering of others. Their only experience comes from photographs and media representation of the suffering across the globe.

It is important to note that Sontag’s book does not seek to answer the question of whether the image representation of suffering has any impact on the viewer as well as the photographer. She rather uses her background, knowledge, and, experience to provoke emotion and thought in the reader with about the same. She does not take sides in the debate but rather opts to analyze the images of war all through history and their representation from both sides. On the one hand, without such images the world would be far removed from the atrocities around the globe and therefore be unable to intervene and relieve the sufferers. However, on the other hand it ,cannot be denied that such images have often been used by media houses to draw viewers in as far as entertainment is concerned.


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Photographs of Vietnamese civilians escaping Vietnamese war

The image shows women hiding in rivers being expected out of the war torn Vietnamese country. Whereas this is a true depiction of the nature of the war in that century, where one can clearly see the pain and suffering in the victvictim’s eyes. The photograph itself raises a few questions as per the book by Sontag. First and foremost, little else is known about the Vietnamese war. Much suffering was recorded as the United States army attempted to restore peace and bring stability to the war torn region. Although this was the aim of the war., many critics have often cited that the war in itself was unjustified and could have brought more suffering than the lack of a stable government. Such suffering can be seen in the image, women with young children hiding in waters, fleeing for their lives is perhaps what can be considered the height of suffering. It can be said that such photographs as taken in the war played a major role in ending the war. In fact, Horst Faas the photographer who took this image and many more in the war was among the people at the forefront, fighting to bring an end to the suffering. Sontag indicates that this may be because the photographer is still moved and becomes emotionally attached to the suffering brought on by the war.

On the other hand, a question could be asked, were there no men escaping the war and gunfire? It could be that majority of the men had died in the war or as Sontag states, we have been drawn to images of women and children suffering. Lier and Rommens (2007) stated that majority of the time photographers tend to focus more on the women. This is because as human beings, viewers are more drawn towards the suffering of women and children often considered the innocent victims of war. The question arises therefore whether the pictures are indeed a lesson to the viewers or they have become a source of entertainment. In this case, viewers seek out the most emotional photographers, while photographers also seek out images that are most likely to draw emotion. In this way it can be said that the photographer took a clear image of individuals at their weakest and exploited it for personal gain. A closer observation of the photograph shows that although it is supposed to be an image of American paratroopers escorting Vietnamese refugees, the paratroopers cannot be seen. Instead, the photograph is taken up by the scared women hiding in bushes along the river, and the crying children on their backs.

Photo of a starving child in Africa

This photograph was taken by a celebrated photojournalist Kevin Carter in southern Sudan. The image shows a young child starving and completely emaciated attempting to reach the nearest feeding station. A vulture lands near the child loosely following him perhaps waiting for his inevitable death. The story behind the photograph has often drawn as much criticism as accolades. When Sontag states that such images are taken to draw the privileged from their comfort and force them into action that will help alleviate suffering of others, she might as well be speaking of such images. As Flusser (2000) states, it is such images and not continued news coverage or stories of suffering that force countries and individuals into action. In the weeks following the publication of the image, viewers and listeners across the globe became engrossed in determining what was the fate of the child and others like him in the south Sudanese war. So concerned was the world, that the young child became an instant celebrity catapulting world leaders into action. Whenever the Sudanese war is mentioned, the picture on everyone’s mind is that of the starving little child photographer by carter.

According to the photographer much later in an interview, the young toddler who had seemed unique in the eyes of the viewer was in fact a daily occurrence at the foot center. Here he stated at least twenty people died every hour. It is important note that this information had been circulated for many years, news and non-governmental organizations in the country had stated this information repeatedly. Calls were made to end the war, for the privileged countries to take action designed to end the conflict in south Sudan. After the publication of the photograph in the New York Times, everyone from leaders, to other journalists all the way to young children were catapulted to bring an end into the action. (FRizot, 1998) commented that in the suffering of human beings, a photograph speaks much more than facts and words. A photograph of a suffering child is much more than any number of published articles. He continues to state that this is why in any story; there must be images, which take up a larger percentage of the page than the words.

As is clear in Sontag’s books, there are often two sides to how a photograph has been viewed. On the one hand, it elicited so much emotion that the world was drawn in to the war in the small country of south Sudan. However, on the other hand, there was a disturbing debate that arose withabout photograph. Majority of the criticism landed on the photographer. Was he so used to such images that it took him twenty minutes to chase away the vulture? And did he really do nothing because he was no longer moved with images such as this? Sontag asks the question severally, can photography numb the humanistic nature forcing us into inaction despite such moving images. Carter himself stated that the only reason he did not asset the child was because photojournalists has been warned from touching victims for fear that they would spread disease. However, his critics questioned the time he took adjusting his lenses to take the “right image” would have been sufficient to alight the food camp volunteers and get help for the child.

SWinnen and Deneulin (2010) however conclude that even though photographers may seem heartless and withdrawn from such images, they are often more connected than even the viewers. They cannot get such images out of their minds and may in fact suffer from serious trauma simply because they see the actual victim and can relate to the photograph more than even the viewers. In fact, three months after taking the photograph, celebrated Pulitzer Prize winner, photographer Carter was found dead having committed suicide. Apparently, he was unable to live with the depressing image which had brought him to a celebrity status.

Photograph of Alyan Kurdi

The photograph published in the guardian newspaper is still considered the most heartbreaking of pictures depicting the effects of the Syrian war. It is important to note that before the picture was published, the Syrian war had continued and raged on for four years. Majority of the people actually have only come to know about the Syrian war in the past few months. Before this, people remained blissfully unaware and unattached to the Syrian war. For many people the war began in the end of 2014 going ton to 2015. World leaders have however been determined to find a solution to the war for many years. Time has been dedicated to negotiate peace, and force a solution. Bull (2010) adds that many wars would go unnoticed especially in the case of civil wars. Without such images, they would remain unrecognized, with many people dying and thousands forced to live in less than humane conditions but with the entire world remaining blissfully unaware. Such images as Sontag state are used to draw us from comfort and throw us into the reality of what is happening beyond the comfortable cocoons we have established for ourselves.

The image of Alyan Kurdi who was found on the Turkish Beach looks like that of a young boy taking a nap, until one sees the proceeding images of police carrying his dead body away. The image brought the reality of what Syrian refuges had to undergo to get to safety. No one wants to see a dead child; this is the height of suffering of the innocents. It draws even the most privileged into the Syrian war, in an attempt to stop such images from being taken or found again.

However, there is still another aspect of this photograph, even with such heartbreaking images little has been done in terms of finding a lasting solution. Refugees continue to die, and perhaps because of the influx of pictures that came after the publication of Kurdi’s dead body, people have become as immune. Few are willing to take into action and participate in the suffering of the Syrian refugees. Surveys have shown that some Americans feel that the Syrian country has brought this kind of suffering upon itself and should therefore, be tasked with finding the solution. Many more countries deny the refuges entry into their borders, forcing the refugees to take too much risk swimming in risky currents and therefore brining the death of even more children such as Kurdi. This is what Sontag is talking about, when she suggests that images of suffering can also make human beings immune to the suffering of others.


Sontag is right when she states that photographs have a role to play in educating the world about the suffering of others. On the one hand, they find ways to bring the suffering right to our doorsteps. Issues that would be alien to us become more relatable. We are canl the suffering of the victims and can therefore participate fully in alleviating the same. Many wars have been needed using simple images that have drawn crowds into action. On the other hand, there are chances that the images will become too much and people then become immune, lacking feeling. Whereas an emotion can be drawn by the image, it is often short terms with people returning to their comfort.


Bull, S. (2010). Photography. London: Routledge.

Flusser, V. (2000). Towards a philosophy of photography. Oxford pres

Frizot, M. (1998). A new history of photography. Köln: Könemann.

Swinnen, J. M., & Deneulin, L. (2010). The weight of photography. Brussels: Academic and Scientific Publishers

Van, L. H., & Rommens, A. (2007). Philosophy of photography. Leuven: Leuven University Press.






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