War photography, like all news worthy images and stories, has adapted to the new media era and endless expansion of technology, meaning it does not stop. The consumers are constantly taking in advertisements and watching the news; both of these are embedded with images. It’s easy for things to get lost in the mix. This is where Sontag’s and Nachtwey’s conversation would begin.
Sontag would challenge Nachtwey, as a professional photographer, with the question of how his work makes an impact. Nachtwey believes an honest depiction has the capacity to stop war, meaning that if a photograph is real, it emotionally shocks the audience into acting or opposing the horrible event. He trusts in the good of humanity, of their compassion and that photographs pull those out of those who see them.
Sontag tries to argue both sides but at the core is a cynic. It happens so rarely that people are disheartened and actually get off their couch and act, or donate. Nachtwey is the extreme case and his own personal journey makes the difference for him. Sontag argues that when it comes to sparking opposition of war or other conflict, that a narrative is more likely to be successful than an image. When looking at a photograph the length of appropriateness of looking at it is confusing, it never changes or progresses. A narrative or story changes and develops and photography is an added layer to that. Where Sontag’s cynical view actually lies is in the diminishing effect of images. This world is so full of images and is events are experienced by the consumers in the way of a spectacle that images that should matter to people, don’t. The nonstop feed of images is desensitizing.
“Our capacity to respond to our experiences with emotional freshness and ethical pertinence is being sapped by the relentless diffusion of vulgar and appalling images.”
Another interesting point of Sontag’s is when she states simply that “public attention is steered by the attention of the media.” The media, especially now, is omnipotent and omnipresent. Images can lose impact for the sheer number of how many people take in, but also by the political bias of the media platform that is using the image. The government, the media, the journalist, each have their own motive and bias. The news itself, according to Sontag, is now more entertainment than anything else. War is a spectacle and “well-off countries have the dubious privilege of being spectators.” TV drains the image of its force, because it is like background noise to the consumers; the idea that bad things happen other places but do not actually effect the well-off countries. Nowadays if an image is upsetting, the consumer can change the channel, turn a page, or more appropriately, swipe their thumb across their phone screen. It can be argued that with how much consumers take in and the fact that it is the job of the journalists and photographers that war photography is not trustworthy because it is exploitative.
Nachtwey is a well decorated with awards, freelance photographer. His success comes from the authenticity and emotionally striking capabilities of his work. Just because photographers make money off of capturing gruesome images, does not mean they eploit the event or the people in them. Nachtwey is known for getting up close to his subjects, or as he says, “in the same space that the subjects inhabit,” which is how the audience feels when viewing, close.
In this, Nachtwey’s goal is for his photographs to “bear witness.” When looking at his honest photographs it is taking Sontag’s point of war being distant and a spectacle head on. His photographs make the person viewing them, a witness to the tragedy, and not a distant spectator. This shows that war photographers are not exploiters. Their agenda and intention to ignite opposition to the conflict is more compensation then the money they earn.
Photos and images do not always get lost in the shuffle of all the noise of the media. Photos are meant to breakthrough tug on the viewers’ heartstrings.
“[Photography] puts a human face on which, from afar, can appear abstract or ideological or monumental in their global impact.” Nachtwey puts himself in the middle of conflict to record truth, to document the struggles of humanity, with his overall goal to wake people up and stir them to action.
Sontag would agree and add it is more exploitative when the photos are used with the intention of being art. Images that are seen in a photo album or printed on rough news paper means something different then displays in a museum. She does not agree that a photograph can be 100% honest or real. Nothing produced can be 100% neutral or objective. But war images do have a very distinct and important function. Even with the little faith Sontag has in humanity, she says,
“Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: this is what human beings are capable of doing.”
Both agree that images are important and can be effective when used correctly. Nachtwey gets up close enough to really have an emotional impact and his photos can be found in places other than TV, such as websites, magazines, and displays during his talks. Sontag would agree with Nachtwey’s intentions and methods of follow through in meeting his goals of sparking action. She would also add that the way they are shown in his talk makes them more real and adds the addition element of a narrative which she states is more likely to have an impact. Repeated exposure to an image makes it less real. Nachtwey’s TED talk is the perfect way to meet his goals because he is arguing his views while taking the audience on the visual journey with him. The photos are real and honest as Nachtwey says, being so close, and they are shown for the perfect amount of viewing time and order as to ensure the hype of impact.