TV Bars - Regarding The Pain of Others Book Review and Analysis - Susan Sontag

Analysing Violent Images; Susan Sontag’s ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’

It should go without saying that the following piece contains disturbing imagery as well as my personal political opinions on the topic of using said images in mainstream media. You’re reading this on the internet, so there’s a good chance your opinion differs from mine.


You’re still reading this, aren’t you? You want to find something to get upset about don’t you? Okay, you’ve been warned!


This is an extended essay, much like Susan Sontag’s, discussing how the images we consume (mostly images in the media) can cause us damage. How they can alter our perspectives on human behaviour and how we think about war. Part theory, part history.

The images used in this article have all been used in mass-media in one form or another

How a photo can tell many stories

Photographs are interpreted differently through many factors. Who’s viewing it? What are their personal experiences? What are the motives of the photographer/media sites? We each attach our own thoughts to a photo, even those with descriptive captions.

The New York Times Foreign Correspondent, John Kifner wrote, ‘the image is stark, one of the most enduring of the Balkan wars: a Serb militiaman casually kicking a dying Muslim woman in the head. It tells you everything you need to know.’ Except, does it?

Regarding the image’s caption; All this photo portrays is the horror of war and the death that it brings to the everyday. It shows the casual use of violence used by the soldiers, or at least, the one in focus. There’s no clear evidence that she is Muslim. I daren’t guess how he [John Kifner] came up with that? Kifner also mentions ‘dying’. Is this supposed to add to the horror more than if the elderly lady were already dead?

From this image alone we can begin to see how captions can manipulate the viewer into thinking what is required and not what is taking place, at least not fully.

These images lead to our next subject, the newspapers and their motto of…

If it bleeds, it leads

Here is one of three images run on the front page of The New York Times in November 2001. It’s part of their piece showing the onset effects of 9/11.

The image shows a wounded Taliban soldier, who in the first two images, is being dragged by his legs. The second image shows the terror on his face as he looks up at his captors. The third is just before his moment of death. Striped from the waist down, beaten and bloody, his captors crowd around as he’s executed.

The New York Times published A Nation Challenged, a section with complete worldwide coverage of the roots and consequences of September 11.

As Susan Sontag explains; ‘An ample reserve of stoicism is needed to get through the great newspaper of record each morning, given the likelihood of seeing photos that could make you cry.

On one hand, these photographs show the harsh realities of war and on the other, it’s that very reason why they shouldn’t be used.

Give me a moment to explain…

I think hope by now we all know the true horror of war. Most of us went to school and flicked through textbooks containing images and descriptions of World War 1 and 2, depictions of Civil Wars as well as the Holocaust. As children, we’re taught the effects that war has on countries as well as the individuals associated with it.

Why then must we be subjected to these images on our daily commute to work? When we put on the evening news? Or open our web browsers?

Feinstein’s research… suggests that the frequency of journalists’ viewing of distressing user-generated imagery is more emotionally consequential than the duration of their exposure.’


I understand that they have their purpose in education but from adulthood onwards do we need these reminders?

This study shows that the images do have a lasting effect on the viewer.

There’s also the photographers themselves.

Many would argue, as Kenneth Jarecke did, ‘If we’re big enough to fight a war, we should be big enough to look at it.’ Add to that the role of a journalistic photographer; by nature somebody who photographs what is happening in the world, war and death included.

This leads to a more interesting point…

What is humane?

Who are you and I to determine what is and isn’t humane? Certainly, a newspaper can be held responsible for such differences and even then they’re only human. They have their own opinions on how much their audience should and shouldn’t see.

On the flip-side, one Google search will bring you all of these gruesome images, unedited, and more. But that must be the prerogative of the searcher, right? If I don’t want to see these images then surely they shouldn’t be forced down my throat with every piece of news I see?

Eddie Adams, taken in February 1968, is a famous image of South Vietnamese national police Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, shooting a Vietcong suspect. The photograph shows the moment the trigger is pulled and shows the final moment of life for the prisoner.

What’s important to take into consideration is the political propaganda associated with the image above. It’s taken to prove a point. The execution is taking place in public after several previous Eddie Adams images show the prisoner being dragged into the Saigon Street. This was the point where journalists had gathered, readying their cameras in anticipation for this very moment.

'It’s not a chance encounter caught by a hungry photo-journalist, but a staged presentation for those very journalists to witness; to take home to their respective newspapers and print across the Atlantic.' Click To Tweet

Roger Tooth wrote an article for the Guardian about the nature of graphic images and how readily available they are on the internet.

But is this an excuse to post them anyway?

Regarding the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 travelling to Kuala Lumpur and being subsequently shot down flying over Ukraine, in July 2014, resulting in 298 deaths (all passengers and crew onboard), he said;

In addition to the thousands of photographs supplied by the main wire agencies, such as AP and Reuters, the most prestigious photojournalists’ agency, Magnum, has been offering a set of images taken by Jerome Sessini from the MH17 crash site.

Sessini certainly didn’t hold back and recorded bodies lying in fields where they fell and, in one case, in a room of a local house, having crashed through the roof. This is an astoundingly dark picture. It is basically a still from a horror movie: the person involved has been accorded absolutely no shred of dignity.

Magnum was, I think, wrong to offer this picture for sale and indeed followed up the initial email offering the set with another apologising for not warning of the nature of content on offer. The pictures shocked me when I opened the email, but I was shocked again to see them published on as a photo essay.

Time prefaced them with the words, “Warning: some of the following images are graphic in nature and might be disturbing to some viewers.” Surely that is more of an invitation to the prurient rather than a warning?

The argument here shouldn’t be that these images are made available elsewhere, I.e on, but that we should all show a greater responsibility in the media we produce. Newspapers don’t have a ‘warning may contain graphic content’ subtitle because the image is already right there in your face.

You have no choice but to see it.

I know that Time magazine used the images online, behind such warning, but that still doesn’t stop them being disrespectful to the person(s) in question and their families.

Would you want an image of you shown online or in the media, to be of you either; dying in agony or ripped apart in a tragic accident?

Similar Arguments

There’re several other opinions parallel to this; in which many will argue that violent video games are to blame. Whilst I do believe that adult-only video games probably do have a slight effect on ‘developing individuals’ who are well below the required age.

I.e. an 8-year-old playing GTA V is unlikely to understand the satire that takes place in the game and believe everything in Los Santos is real. Violence included.

However, I feel that pointing the finger at these types of media is easy. Why would you take responsibility for your own parenting/educational system when it’s easier to blame others?

In the 80’s it was violent video nasties. The early ’90s took aim at video games with the surge in sales of; Doom, Duke Nukem, and Grand Theft Auto to name but a few. The late ’90s brought along satanic music, led by the anti-Christ himself, Marilyn Manson. All of these controversies summarised by Michael Moore in his 2002 documentary, Bowling for Columbine.

Below is an interview with Marilyn Manson taken from the Bowling for Columbine Documentary, in which they briefly discuss violence in the media.


I’ve covered a lot of ground here, from violent depictions of war (through photographs) to the ethics of placing these images into mainstream media.

Newspapers are a team effort and as a result, consist of different individuals with various ideas making time-sensitive decisions. These choices are made quickly with almost no rules to follow, so it’s easy to regret a previous photo that you ran with a day earlier.

Nevertheless, these same companies need to be held responsible for the graphic photographs that it does use, both now, and in the future.

Work Cited:

‘Dying Muslim’, New York Times: John Kifner

‘A Nation Challenged’, New York Times FrontCover

Anthony Feinstein, M.B.B.Ch., M.Phil., PhD, FRCPC: ‘Why journalism is undoubtedly more dangerous today’

Kenneth Jarecke Quote, Torie Rose DeGhett; The War Photo No One Would Publish

‘Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan’, Photographer Eddie Adams (February 1968).

Roger Tooth – The Guardian, Graphic content: when photographs of carnage are too upsetting to publish

Video Nasties, BBFC. 5 October 2011.

IGN, Presents the history of Grand Theft Auto

Marilyn Manson Interview on Bowling for Columbine, Bowling for Columbine Official Website. 2002-10-11.

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Gillian 20th May 2019 - 11:14 pm

There are a lot of images here that I’ve never seen before. How do they get to use them on front covers?

Kristopher Cook 21st May 2019 - 12:11 am

Yeah, it’s shocking what the media can get away with, especially when compared to forms of art. But, at the end of the day, their goal is to turn a profit and controversy sells.


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