Dhaka Drawings pt 2: Day 4 + Review: Susan Sontag ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’

Self Portrait 3 Nov 2Self-portrait, whilst listening to Bach’s Art of Fugue. I stop when the music also abruptly stops. This drawing intrigues me and gives me joy, I don’t think it particularly looks like me, but it seems to have captured something I cannot place. Maybe in the future when I revisit it, I will see what emotions it triggers.  I constantly wonder what impact what I read, see and do has on what I draw and how I see myself. So this constant desire to do self-portrait is quite a unique way to reflect.



Ben had recommended I pick up Sontag’s ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’ as part of the reading list for my PhD proposal.

Finishing the book, I wanted write some thoughts that have crossed my mind over the past few months, as I have been moved to draw – from inspiration, a forced exercise to improve technique and at other times, to reconcile and be at peace whilst we continue working.

‘There is simply too much injustice in the world. And too much remembering (of ancient grievances: Serbs, Irish) embitters. To make peace is to forget. To reconcile, it is necessary that memory be faulty and limited. (pg 103) 

I related to Sontag’s dilemma of trying to understand what maybe too much? Or what, constitutes as anything but an abstraction – however good a photograph maybe in depicting a particular situation or scenario, it is clear, the consumer can always switch it off – out of sight, out of mind. Could we recreate images of the recent Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka – where the tirade of images by Bangladeshi photographers could not tell us what the bodies smelt of amidst the burning fabrics, the stench that may have erupted and nauseated peoples ability to react. Can the stories of such atrocities reflect anything but an abstraction. I still do not know.

My question to myself has been, if I am not there – how FERTILE is my own imagination to be able to visualise, empathise or connect? I read the paper in the morning – like every other consumer – and cast it aside as ‘news’, this is the reality of the world I inhabit, it is filled with murders, fires, attacks and political and social injustice, both here in Bangladesh and the wider world- ISIS, Ebola crisis, Russia/Ukraine, my twitter feed giving me updates on Human Rights abuse in Iraq, in Palestine, in Bangladesh.

Yet, I seem to continue to expose myself to news, to ideas and thoughts that I am uncomfortable with – to test and push my knowledge of the world around me – I seem naive about what human beings are capable of.

‘If the goal is having some space in which to live one’s own life, then it is desirable that the account of specific injustices dissolve into a more general understanding that human beings everywhere do terrible things to one another.’ (pg 103)

Scan 16

Am I also a voyeur to some degree as Sontag proposes? perhaps so, there is a lure there which I cannot place. What can I contemplate?, watching a child on the streets of Dhaka, knowing full well that I can go home to a bed after having drawn him sleeping on the footpath as in the above drawing? What purpose does that serve? Other than, when I look at the drawing, it reminds me that suffering exists, that struggles are real, that injustice exists, and the brunt end are often those least able to do anything about it: children, who, often through systemic injustice, are unable to do anything about it but to struggle on with their daily life. ( I will expand on this thought after finishing my chapter on Schopenhauer) This is an enduring injustice, it is not a War that shocks, it dissolves into the background, it becomes, often, somebody else’s problem, or the states responsibility..

Where does Sontag end? Her open ended critique provided a rich repository of references and precedents from Goya to Jeff Wall to a myriad of painters and photographers in between as well as recollecting on her experiences in Sarajevo. What I also take from it, is that the emotional connection – the ability to FEEL something, or to be moved by an image or drawing, or to be disturbed, becomes less about the image itself – more so now, I need context and understanding of the purpose and process. Architecture has perhaps, along with Modernity, made my own critical self-reflexive practice quite cynical and structural. I desire to deconstruct an idea and look at its point of inspiration. Why does Picasso’s Guernica excite me, but not photographs of the unknown dead from countless wars? Why has the recent attacks on Gaza spurred me to want to investigate further the Palestine peoples struggle? Can we say the media has been successful in finally humanising this particular cause? Rather than religious wars, and wars against nation states, this time, it was the bombing of children and flattening of homes, using disproportionate force.

I am not adept at using the camera as a tool for communicating my emotions or feelings, I see it as a tool often removed from the subject – there is a disconnection between my eyes, the camera lens and the potential site/subject/object. It is a documentation tool for me- it records what is seen – perhaps not what is felt, I can compose an aesthetically pleasing image, I can experiment with the cameras potential, yet it does not connect with me in a way drawing – and perhaps in the future, painting does. Is that possibly because I write and draw with my hands mostly, journaling when possible – it is a direct communication about what ideas emerge.

Yet, Sontag clearly focuses on the idea of war photography, of documenting atrocities, and refers to Edmund Burke, Geirge Bataille, Baudrillard and Guy Debord – by reflecting on the wider issue of consumptive societies at large, accepting we are attracted to both the vulgar, ugly and beautiful naked truths of life and death. It is mainstream Media (a broad sweeping idea) which often softens what can be shown – choosing and curating the story its backers / financiers / readers want to show or see, rather than the absolute gut-wrenching truth.

The world was moved by the image of the Israeli army blasting 3 young boys on a beach in Gaza, it caused a reaction.

Sensoring what ‘they’ think is good for ‘us’ has made me rethink some ideas on the role of the artist or practitioner in general, who for me, has a moral and ethical obligation to engage and communicate wider truths through his or her practice (or if they choose not to do such a thing, to not pretend to). It is often clear when that happens, for me, craft and technique are crucial.

To conclude, I want to quote Sontag ‘We truly can’t imagine what it was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes. Cant understand, can’t imagine. Thats what every soldier, and every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire, and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby, stubbornly feels. And they are right.’  And add, that my practice has allowed me to engage with a particular set of situations where some exposure to poverty numbs the senses, I need to often re-align and reflect on such experiences in order so that my senses are not numbed, that they stay alert and do not create a generalised image – That is difficult, if not seemingly impossible. Being privileged enough to escape when the fire gets too hot, I will never be able to fully understand, but I can continue trying. 

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