Susan Sontag and James Nachtwey Walk Into a Bar

James: Good afternoon Susan. How are you?

Susan: I’m doing well thanks. How are you?

James: I’m good. I just got back from a trip from Sudan and South Africa. Do you want to see some of the photographs I took from the trip?

Susan: Sure!

James: This first image I took was in Sudan of a person inside one of the feeding camps.

Susan: They look emaciated.

James: Here’s the second image. It was taken in South Africa when I saw a grandmother caring for a young girl who had HIV.

Susan: Both images immediately shock you.

James: I knew when taking both photos that it would be difficult for people to look at. The person is a crawling skeleton and the amount of pain you see in both the grandmother and child’s eyes is enough to make someone breakdown and want to help them.

Susan: Was showing the emotional pain in these photos the most important component for you to capture?

James: Yes, because I wanted people to see that people have suffered tremendously from starvation and diseases and no one is helping them.

Susan: What was your overall intent with publishing these photos?

James: My goal not just with these photos but with photojournalism in general is to capture the most gruesome aspects of humanity that shocks people enough to remember the image. Then, I like to show the beautiful side to the photo.

Susan: What beauty are you referring to? All I see is someone starving and pain on the faces of the grandmother and child. To me that doesn’t show beauty it shows horror.

James: Well, that’s the point. In order to reveal the beauty in the world you have to show the gruesome and shocking aspects of it because, that’s what life is. It’s full of both good and bad components.

Susan: I understand that both photos have to comprise of both an appalling and beauty aspect to them. However, from my perspective, the camera that takes the photo which then gets published by the media causes these shocking images to be ignored in a sense because people can’t relate to the people in other countries as they have not experienced what those people in the images you showed me have gone through.

James: I understand completely what you’re saying. However, these images that have both a gruesome yet beautiful aspect about them manages to document a moment in history that forces people to learn more about what is occurring in other countries while also forcing people to never forget these people in other countries and what they’re going through.

Susan: I understand what you’re getting at. However, photography that shows images of people suffering causes people to be less interested in the subject because, people constantly see these images spread across the media.

James: So, appalling images are difficult for people to view because they can’t relate to it?

Susan: Yes, because we are so absorbed by images everyday that we become immune to the images you showed me causing the content and meaning of the subject to be diminished because people can’t emotionally relate to those people in other countries.

James: What’s the consequence to people not being able to relate to certain images?

Susan: The consequence is people become less interested in helping the people seen in various photos.

James: Interesting. I still believe that when someone looks at these two images they will be shocked. That shock causes people to look at the image and never forget it.

Susan: See I’m not so sure I agree with you .

James: Why is that?

Susan: Well, I agree with you that photographs especially images of war and conflict manage to dig at someone’s conscious. However, I think that we as members of the American culture are numbed by the images the media projects out into the world.

James: How are we numbed from the images that are projected out into the world? Isn’t the purpose of a photograph to document history and reveal the truth?

Susan: Yes, photographs are meant to document and summarize the message for people. Photographs help visually show moments that occurred. However, we become numb from these images because, the media tends to only show what they think is necessary to show the world.

James: How does that affect people though?

Susan: This causes people to not understand the meaning of the photograph. All they remember is that it’s an image that shocks them. They don’t remember anything else about it because they don’t understand the photographs purpose.

James: How would images like the ones I showed you not cause people to immediately understand what the photographs are about?

Susan: Well, it goes back to my previous point. Photographs that capture either war or some form of conflict do in fact shock people. However, the image itself doesn’t help the viewer to clearly understand what it’s about.

James: So, is it better for the image to be featured within a narrative form or stay in its original photographic form?

Susan: Narratives allow us to thoroughly understand the subject because it explains everything to us in words.

James: What about photographs?

Susan: Well photographs visually shock people. However, they don’t provide a full explanation the way a narrative does. There’s no explanation with a photograph.

James: How does everything you said apply back to the two images I showed you?

Susan: Well, both images shock you emotionally. However, both photographs don’t tell the viewer the entire story on why those people are suffering.

James: So photographs are a great tool to shock people to remember images but they aren’t good to explain events?

Susan: Correct.

James: Well, I have to get going it was great talking to you Susan.

Susan: It was great talking to you as well.

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