Photographs, for Susan Sontag, are accessories to the act of remembering. Regarding the Pain of Others is as much about what we do and don't remember as it is about representations of suffering - photographs of war and disaster, for the most part - and their value. The archives of ordinary individuals are stacked with visual index cards that trigger a range of private associations. There's also a public archive, a shared compendium of familiar images, which Sontag cannot bring herself to call 'collective memory'. 'Strictly speaking,' she writes, 'there is no such thing as collective memory - part of the same family of spurious notions as collective guilt.' But she does believe in the existence of ideology, with its entourage of 'poster-ready' images, 'the visual equivalent of sound bites', all of them, it turns out, American or US-patented: 'the mushroom cloud of an A-bomb test, Martin Luther King Jr speaking at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, the astronaut walking on the moon'. 'What is called collective memory,' she argues, 'is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important . . . with the pictures that lock the story in our minds.'
LRB 21 August 2003 | PDF Download