Park Scholars discuss Susan Sontag's "Regarding the Pain of Others"

By: John Vogan

On Saturday, September 11, 2010 - the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States - Park Scholars joined together to discuss Susan Sontag’s book, Regarding the Pain of Others. 

Park Scholar Program Director Matt Fee prefaced the day’s discussion with a few opening remarks, and then scholars went into small groups for discussion.  This semester’s facilitators were Associate Dean Mansfield-Richardson, Professor Jack Powers, and Dr. Fee.

Steven Brasley, a freshman journalism major from Epsom, NH, commented on how well Sontag was able to cite examples from many different historical periods, and not just modern-day events.  

“She was very thorough in explaining how images of pain and suffering have shaped our history,” said Brasley, “even dating back to the Civil War and the Revolution.  One example that really stood out to me was the controversy over Matthew Brady’s photograph at Gettysberg, when he allegedly posed the Confederate soldier’s body in order to get a more powerful shot.”

Later in the day, the scholars regrouped in the Park Auditorium to watch a screening of Christian Frei’s film War Photographer, a 90-minute documentary that features the work of photographer James Nachtwey.  Frei, a Swiss author, director and producer followed Nachtwey over a period of two years as he witnessed first-hand the wars of Indonesia, Kosovo, and Palestine.

Sam Towle, a freshman cinema and photography major from Three Bridges, NJ, had mixed emotions after watching the film. 

“When it comes to war, I believe the photography should be as objective as possible,” Towle said.  “What upset me most about the movie was when they were talking about pictures being used as ‘art’.  I like the photographer’s perspective because he seemed to actually care about what he was documenting, but I think the documentary purposely showed people looking at his pictures in the gallery at the end of the film, and then turning to their friends with a drink and laughing.”

As a final exercise, scholars were split into small groups to evaluate six different photographs that dealt with pain and suffering throughout history. 

The course of the day’s discussion, while very emotionally stirring and thought-provoking, did not go so far as to completely answer the countless number of questions Sontag offered in Regarding the Pain of Others.  However, it will continue to assist scholars as they look at images throughout the year and employ the ethical analysis they developed as a result of the book.


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