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Putting the photos in perspective

Susan Sontag’s 28-year-old book On Photography gives a better take on the Iraq torture snaps than most of today’s commentaries.

Josie Appleton

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The papers are again full of images of domination and degradation – photos of British soldiers simulating punches and kicks at trussed Iraqi detainees, standing on a detainee with stick in hand, or forcing others to act out gay sex.

But as Mick Hume pointed out last year on spiked, when similar photos from Abu Ghraib were made public, these images bear a striking resemblance to the everyday torture and humiliation that is part of our reality TV-obsessed culture (see Is Abu Ghraib the military version of reality TV?). This is drummed home by the fact that on the middle pages of the same papers comes news of a new London craze called ‘happy slapping’, where boys go up to people in public, slap them around the face, and get their mates to video it on their mobile phones.

For your titillation are more pictures of Caprice from Channel 4’s Celebrity Big Brother prostrating herself by the pool (a few days ago it was John McCririck picking his nose). Then there is would-be Tory MP Robert Oulds in ‘Rambo poses’ with his friend’s arsenal of weapons, lying suggestively on a bed with the guns in front of him, and cocking a rifle in his arm.

Degrading snapshots are everywhere – but commentators have offered little in terms of analysis or explanation. More insight comes from a somewhat unlikely quarter: On Photography, a slim book of essays published in 1977 by the American writer Susan Sontag, who died a few weeks ago (1). Sontag showed how Western society’s use of images reflects its problems of social, intellectual and moral alienation.

The growth of photography, said Sontag, was about taking a ‘chronically voyeuristic relation to the world’. With camera in hand, the world and its occupants become prey for our amusement, with our subjects expected to pose, to expose themselves on film. The effect, said Sontag, ‘is to convert the world into a department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item for aesthetic appreciation’. What Sontag saw in surrealist photographers who went around collecting images of freaks, we can see in the baiting of McCririck on Celebrity Big Brother, or the video Bumfights, featuring tramps beating each other up for food and liquor.

There is no particular reason for the violence and intimidation – it is just staged for the camera. As Sontag wrote in the New York Times after the photos came out from Abu Ghraib, ‘There would be something missing if, after stacking the naked men, you couldn’t take a picture of them’ (2). Soldiers prove themselves not by fighting war, but by staging mock-torture photo shoots to show to their friends. Kids prove themselves not by fighting or carrying out daredevil pranks, but by slapping unsuspecting passersby for film. A politician proves himself not by going hunting but by posing with his friend’s collection of guns.

In the images of British soldiers, the torturers are indifferent to their subjects. All eyes are on the camera, giving grins or the thumbs up. Both London passersby and Iraqi detainees are being played with, allotted an involuntary part in somebody else’s movie. ‘You starred on Happy Slap TV’, was the appropriate sign-off that one of the boys used for his video clips.

Today, you could say that the relationship between exhibitionist and voyeur is one of the few social relationships still standing. Others – between father and son, leader and party, with workmates or members of the public – have fallen away in recent decades. One way in which people make contact and gain affirmation is by making and consuming images of each other. Somehow people’s actions don’t seem so important unless they are caught on film and distributed.

Consider the explosion of realtime webcams, with people proffering up their lives for the perusal of strangers. ‘Watch me at work’, invites one, and sure enough you see an image of her seated at her computer (after work hours you can watch her at home – for now you just get a shot of her empty bed). A couple put their newborn baby on a live webcam, so that people could see her grow and develop. A somewhat less interesting site invites viewers to ‘watch my Mac’. Where once people might have gained social recognition in their work and private relationships, now it seems that all they can say is ‘Look at me!’.

If these video sites weren’t enough, there is a new trend of hacking into CCTV cameras, to spy on people going about their daily business. What could be a more alienated way of making touch with others? Rather than look people around you in the face, you spy on strangers over grainy official video.

The roles of exhibitionist and voyeur are often interchangeable. It is likely that the British soldiers who posed with Iraqi detainees had the camera in mind when they posed; they were leering at the same time that they showed themselves off. And in one of those photos you can see some other soldiers also taking photos, with the voyeurs becoming part of the shot.

Because we are so caught up in these images, we often seem to think that they tell us all there is to know. Staged photos have driven political events and international affairs – with the images of Abu Ghraib, the British hostage Ken Bigley, and now the latest torture photos turning up the heat on Bush and Blair over the war in Iraq. Arguments about the wrongs of the war often fall on deaf ears; it is these images that really hit home.

As Sontag argued in On Photography, photos provide a false sense of understanding. ‘Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks.’ It is the reduction of everything to surface impressions, giving up on the task of probing beneath appearance to find out why things look as they do.

Sontag wasn’t the only one in the 1960s and 70s who took up society’s fascination with mass-produced images. Other examples include The Image by US conservative Daniel J Boorstin, Society of the Spectacle by the French leftist Guy Debord, and works by the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard.

Yet while others tended to see society’s fascination with images as a mere sham, a fake show that should be exposed and dispensed with, Sontag saw it as a reflection of people’s real relationships to one another. ‘The notions of image and reality are complementary. When the notion of reality changes so does the notion of the image, and vice versa. “Our era” does not prefer images to real things out of perversity but partly in response to the ways in which the notion of what is real has been progressively complicated and weakened.’ It is because of problems in real lives that people turn to the camera.

Today, by contrast, most commentaries just become part of the performance, speculating about this or that member in the Big Brother house, or dissecting the soldiers’ torture poses in minute detail. This was epitomised by the academic Germaine Greer, renowned for her works on feminism and literature, who literally became part of the performance in Big Brother. Although she had earlier described the show as ‘about as dignified as looking through the keyhole in your teenage child’s bedroom door’, she seemed unable to resist. When she walked out after five days, she was given a big slot in The Sunday Times to expound her views – and instead of analysing the reality TV phenomenon, she offloaded all her gripes about her fellow housemates (3).

Sontag’s writings live on, and set an example for anybody wishing to get under the skin of today’s image-soaked world.

(1) On Photography, by Susan Sontag, Penguin 1977 (buy this book from
Amazon UK or Amazon USA). The essays were published earlier in the New York Review of Books

(2) See What Have We Done?, reproduced on the Common Dreams website

(3) ‘Germaine Greer: Filth!’, The Sunday Times, 16 January 2005

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