Regarding the Pain of Others

The Museum of Jewish Heritage hosted a fascinating discussion last night based on the Susan Sontag book Regarding the Pain of Others.

Each of the presenters had an interesting take on how photos of atrocities — from Cambodia to September 11th — should, or should not, be made public.  In short, such photos educate us on the effects of war; they can provoke social change; and censoring them in the name of good taste can be a method of government control.

But the most interesting part of the panel was a rift that developed between Clifford Chanin, a senior program adviser to the 9/11 Memorial Museum, and Sidney Schanberg, a former Times reporter and photographer in Cambodia.

Chanin made the case that some images can be so traumatizing that they defeat the purpose of showing them in the first place.  In short, the photograph’s function — to bear witness to an event — is lost if the viewer shuts down psychologically.

Schanberg was skeptical.  He seemed to think that a little trauma was a good thing, a motivating factor that might shock people into caring, but wouldn’t paralyze their ability to process the photo, nor do them any long-term psychological damage.

A questioner wondered whether the source of their disagreement was rooted in the different functions of museums and the media.  That’s possible, of course, but I tend to think it’s even more simple.

September 11th was a traumatizing moment for Americans, and particularly, New Yorkers, so in Chanin’s case there is a very real, latent trauma that might be easily activated by some of the terrifying photos from that morning.  In Schanberg’s case, he felt his charge with the Times was to make people see what was happening — to traumatize them into caring about atrocities that were a world away.

I wonder if Schanberg would have felt differently about a display of Cambodia atrocities in Cambodia, or if Chanin might view the potential for psychological trauma to be less acute were he displaying photos of 9/11 outside either New York or America.

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