Reaction to the Corcoran Gallery

Leaving The Corcoran Gallery, I was amazed at the emotions it stirred in me. This trip made me rethink my earlier stance on Sontag. Before I had felt that there were other points of view besides those of a “spectator or coward.” Now however, I believe that in war photography there are only the two options. I had never actually turned away from a photograph the way some of those images made me. The dead Taliban insurgent, with a clear bullet wound in his head, made me do that. As did the woman with Napalm burns from Vietnam. Even those that I didn’t turn away from, such as shot down an Israeli sniper rifle sight, or the wedding of the Marine with the horrible wounds, I felt like a spectator. I felt like I was watching something I shouldn’t. I had this feeling of guilt and shame, watching something I shouldn’t, watching a world I neither belonged to or was welcome in. I felt like a spectator, someone who is using the lives of others as an amusement, and I felt sick about it. Still, when I was just describing the various images, they all jumped back into my mind. This I believe is the strength of photography. Like Sontag said, the power of the image, as the basic unit of memory, is the most powerful of all. I was able to empathize with those photographs, and keep them with me better than I could with a text or a video. The stark unchanging nature of the photos did something that other mediums rarely do, they made me connect on a deep level with the subject. That is the ultimate power of photographs. However, they need captioning or else the real story can be hidden, and the images can be used by any one for any purpose, as Sontag reflects on as well. However, when used correctly photographs are an amazing tool in the hands of historians and researchers.


3 thoughts on “Reaction to the Corcoran Gallery”

  1. In response to WJDOWNIE-

    I too experienced the turning away from the photographs that seemed just too gruesome to look at. I think it’s very interesting that you say that as a spectator, you felt like you were intruding. I don’t think Sontag considers that being a spectator could make you feel as though you are looking at something you aren’t welcome to look at. However, most of these images are so personal that now I realize how many of them seem almost too private to be put in an exhibit. Looking back on all the death, disfigurement, and candid photographs I saw in the exhibit, I wonder if it’s really “right” or moral to be looking at such personal shots. However, then I think back to the image of the woman with Napalm Burns from Vietnam. She was clearly posing for the photograph, almost as if she wanted to show the world what they did to her. This makes me feel almost proud to be a spectator because I’m the intended audience: she wants to show the world (her audience) just how destructive war violence can be so that it changes in future generations. On the other hand, some shots were definitely not posed for, like the dying man in “Taliban”. Would he have wanted his dead (or almost dead) body to be posted on a giant mural? I’m not so sure. I really liked that you pointed out these feelings of intrusiveness which I never really thought about.

  2. After seeing all of these photos and scenes from war, I would agree that the power of these photos is the impact they have on our memory. However, I feel like this power comes at two very distinct levels: a sympathetic level and an empathetic level. As you mentioned, these photos are so moving that simply typing these responses causes you to recall when you were at the museum viewing them. However, viewing these photos is only as far as we can relate to them because we are not literally experiencing the scenarios depicted. We are limited to merely looking at what’s happening, causing us to only be able to sympathize with, or feel sorry for, these people and what they seem to be suffering through. This forces us to only feel the photo’s emotion to a certain extent. However, if these photos were viewed by someone who actually experienced these scenes in real life, such as a war veteran, the photo’s power would reach an entirely new level. Seeing the photo would not just show them the pain of war, it could cause them to literally recall the pain. War veteran’s and others that experienced the suffering are the only one’s capable of empathizing with those in these photo’s, not just sitting back and spectating what’s happening. They lived through this type of pain, they didn’t just look and learn about it.

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