Disaster Photography: Susan Sontag’s Perspective


Emotions in photography come from within a person and represent their state of mind or attitude. The power of photography lies in how people can put themselves into the perspectives of those captured in the image (Orvell 2021, 16). Whether it is photojournalism, street photography, or portraiture, individuals use photography as a tool to understand themselves and others in their surroundings. Like other forms of art, photography undergoes intense moral scrutiny by the viewers, who are worried about the increase in violent pictures, subjects’ consent to be photographed, and misinterpretation due to manipulated pictures. In addition, the public might question the fret that shooting pictures excessively reduces the ability of people to experience the world. Although the aforementioned concerns are timely and immediate in this century, Susan Sontag articulated them in her book, “Regarding the Pain of Others.” This essay aims to examine the impact of photography on the emotions of a person based on Susan Sontag’s perspective of disaster photography. I will take a historical approach in exploring the research question. The method allows a critical evaluation of the past features of disaster photography and links them to Susan Sontag’s ideas to establish the impact of disaster photography on society today.

The perspectives used to answer the research question are drawn from a comprehensive evaluation of selected materials that discuss the use of photography in documenting global disasters and its impact on society. Since, the resources are recent, they can be used to inform future recommendations. The research provides a rationale for the ideas of Sontag about disaster photography as it determines the negative and positive impact of the phenomenon on society. Human beings have transformed to share others’ emotions and develop empathy for them through images. Susan Sontag argues against this idea by claiming that images violate people (Sontag 2003, 80). She believes that constant viewing of pictures of violence triggers the immunity of individuals, altering their view of society and sense of morality. The current research builds on this argument by describing how the commoditization of photography makes it banal, resulting in opportunistic image exploitation and inhibition of empathy in practice and discourse. I will first examine the numbing effect of disaster photography on society. Secondly, I will explore the extent to which disaster photography goes in transforming the community by conveying knowledge. Lastly, the research will discuss the moral dilemma in individuals’ reactions to photographs of people suffering.

Main Body

How Disaster Photography Causes Apathy and Cynicism

First, the effect of disaster photography can be explored through the visual influence, emotional impact, and psychological effect of such pictures on society. Sontag (2003) claims that photos convey incontrovertible evidence that something happened. Although the image might be distorted, it presumes the existence of a thing in the present or past. Generally, disaster photographs aim to provide visual and emotional identification because viewing images of people suffering involves paying attention to the subjects of the violence. The photos act as an index that correlates to external societal aspects and an icon that holds a direct likeness to the literal reality portrayed in the scene. The image of reality in the picture triggers viewers’ moral outrage and shock, confirming the truthfulness of the violence observed and prompting the urgency of action required to correct the situation. Since pictures of injured bodies have long been used to vivify condemnation of fights, artists, such as archipelago, used disaster photography to bring the global conflict to people with no war experience (Protschky 2018, 9). Nevertheless, the relationship between empathy and photography continues to be problematic because of sympathy and a failure of empathy, which comes with the proliferation of war photographs.

Apathy is seen in what Sontag describes as the inability of people to extend their emotional identification past the confines of self. The lack of emotional connection to photography can be rooted in the media manipulating objects and photographs to fit the message they want to convey. Photojournalism sensationalizes pictures for commercial reasons, which has hardened viewers’ hearts to disaster photographs. The proliferation of war images makes individuals accept violence as part of the world’s reality (Hoffman and Kaire 2020, 1671). According to Sontag, there is a proliferation of acceptable sadism and violence (Sontag 2003, 90). Therefore, people are more likely to dismiss such pictures claiming they do not represent conflict renouncement evidence.

Additionally, the human failure of empathy can be linked to modern technology, which has increased people’s exposure to photography, influencing their emotional reactions. The increase in disaster images in society is further deepened by the pervasiveness of camera phones in the 21st century, which makes it easy for individuals to access such pictures. Due to modernity, many people have become disaster photojournalists who benefit from, extend, and contribute to the field in unimaginable ways. Consequently, this oversaturation of photos of violence and destruction on the internet makes it hard for viewers to be affected by them (Ye et al. 2020, 3). Constant viewing of disaster photos, according to Sontag, contributes to a lack of emotional sensitivity to the imagery, thus causing apathy (Sontag 2003, 91). Although artists are allowed to document catastrophes to create awareness and understanding of matters that require urgent resolution, repeated images can be counterproductive (Lichfield 2014, 5). Too much exposure reduces the accuracy, truthfulness, and emotional appeal of the suffering events to people, resulting in cynicism. Further, the audience believes that photographers prioritize taking pictures over helping people, provoking individuals’ sense to look and not assist those in agony.

Limits of Disaster Photography in Transforming Society

Secondly, disaster photography is limited to conveying knowledge as it does not significantly transform society. Although knowledge spread through photography goads the viewers’ conscience, it does not create long-lasting ethical or political awareness. The power of photography lies in how it communicates so much instantly and conveys information that cannot be put in written formats. The information presented by photos tends to trigger sentimental emotions (cynical or humanist) among the audience (Sontag 2003, 17). The author argues that disaster images arouse feelings of frustration and rage among citizens, which translates to sympathy. The viewers are more likely to pity the people suffering but cannot do anything about their situation. For this reason, the ethical sensibility of these images cannot be calculated; the ubiquity of these pictures only makes people learn what is going on in other places and understand the extent of others’ suffering (Lydon 2016. 2). Sontag believes individuals should translate the compassion they feel for those suffering in images to action, without which it withers. However, when people feel there is nothing they can do, they develop cynical and apathetic emotions. As a result, no action is taken to transform society by assisting those in need.

Disaster photography is constricted to provoke viewers’ conscience and emotions, but there is no ethical or moral transformation attached to the cruelties represented in the images. Sontag uses the example of photos of black victims of small-town lynching in America during the 1980s and 1930s (Sontag 2003, 81). The pictures were displayed to thousands of viewers in a New York gallery, providing them with a revelatory and shattering experience about inhumanity and the wickedness of human beings. The audience was enlightened on the evils brought by racism and the shamelessness of the photographers taking those pictures. Although people shared in the misery of the black victims and sympathized with them, their actions did not portray any intervention. Sontag explains that photographers act as observers rather than agents in the wars. Therefore, their minds are closely allied to the camera such that any form of intervention is exempted. Taking pictures, therefore, is considered a symbol of inaction and passivity and a gesture to reinforce the apathy status quo. Photographing requires one to be involved with what makes the subject attractive or exciting, including the misfortunes and pain of other people. In addition to the fact that the ubiquity of disaster photographs makes one indifferent to the suffering of others, a witness at the scene, mainly the photographer, can become cynical because of fear of what is happening.

Moral Dilemma in Disaster Photography

Finally, Susan Sontag discusses the moral dilemma associated with the urge of people to respond to shots of people suffering. She argues that although viewers are often sympathetic, they feel that they are not accomplices to what led to the subject’s suffering. As a result, the audience is confused about whether they should respond by doing something to resolve the disaster or look at the pictures and do nothing. According to Sontag, the audience’s sympathy proclaims their powerlessness as well as their innocence (Sontag 2003, 91). She argues that viewers of disaster photography should reserve the emotions they direct to suffering pictures and reflect on how they are more privileged than the violence subjects in the images (Sontag 2003, 91). Consequently, they prefer not to think about the suffering and deprivation of others, which prompts them to settle and do nothing about the plight of others. Additionally, most viewers believe that photographers alter pictures to increase their emotional and physical appeal to clients. With the increase in modernity and technology, many people own cameras. Therefore, they can edit the actual pictures taken in the scene to suit the message they want to convey to citizens. As a result, this makes people doubt the truthfulness and reality of events captured in images. Consequently, they react by ignoring or forgetting what they have seen and going on with their everyday lives.

On the contrary, disaster images convey a message that prompts people to act to resolve the conflict. Photos taken in the past by experienced photographers tended to bring various contradictory aspects together. The information conveyed by the pictures was authentic and believable, and viewers looked at them with empathy and sought ways to resolve the violence and war represented in the art. The two contradictory photography features that were merged in the 1800s and 1900s are representation and reality (Yasmin 2015, 217). For example, Sontag claims that the photographed images of the Vietnam War made the conflict real, thus mobilizing protests against the conflict. Further, the attention and perception created by journalists triggered people to act to stop the war in Bosnia.

However, the counter-elements of today’s photography exceed boundaries in the media-saturated society, evoking the self-representation moral limit and the social reality when transforming the world into photos for relentless consumption. In the new era, the skill of conjoining contradictory imagery features is lost, making it easy for photojournalists to edit shots to be what they want (Huber 2019, 4). Since everyone is addicted to aesthetic consumerism and love experiences enhanced by edited pictures, they need the truth presented in disaster images to be confirmed (Cameron et al. 2017, 14). The photographs’ lack of realness and their ubiquity on the internet put people in a moral dilemma of whether they should believe what they see in pictures and want to stop the violence or look and forget about what they saw.


To conclude, photographs have the power to appeal to people’s emotions, hence impacting society. Disaster photography shapes the crises and catastrophes people need to pay attention to, what they care about, and the actions attached to these conflicts. However, viewers are often faced with the challenge of interpreting pictures in a manner that allows them to cultivate empathy. One way to achieve this is by identifying the hindrances to emotional identification that photojournalism imposes. Photographers are responsible for mindfully selecting disaster subjects to take pictures rather than taking pictures of anything and editing them. Additionally, snappers should reconsider merging image representation and reality to ensure images represent the truth and are believable. Consequently, the audience will perceive pictures with the awakening of intractable reality, and the snaps will have a perfect illusion. Consequently, this will appeal more to people’s emotions, triggering empathy. Furthermore, viewers should pay more attention to the message embedded in disaster photographs, making them experience deep emotional identification with the subjects and the photographer. Without nurturing empathy and avoiding the dangers associated with photographic objectification, disaster photographs will appeal to people’s eyes, but they will not take action to assist the suffering.


Cameron, Daryl, Michael Inzlicht, and William Cunningham. 2017. “Does Empathy Have Limits?” The Conversation.

Hoffman, Aaron and José Kaire. 2020. “Comfortably Numb: Effects of Prolonged Media Coverage.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 64 (9) 2020: 1666-1692.

Huber, Mary. 2019. “How is Disaster Photography Sublime?” Frieze.

Lichfield, Gideon. 2014. “In Defense of the Disaster Selfie.” Quartz.

Lydon, Jane. 2016. “Worth a Thousand Words: How Photos Shape Attitudes to Refugees.” The Conversation.

Orvell, Miles. 2021. Empire of Ruins: American Culture, Photography, and the Spectacle of Destruction. USA: Oxford University Press.

Protschky, Susie. 2018. “Searching for Indonesian Histories of Disaster in Photography.” Research Center for Material Culture.

Sontag, Susan. 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Penguin.

Yasmin Ibrahim. 2015. “Self-Representation and the Disaster Event: Selfimaging, Morality and Immortality.” Journal of Media Practice 16(3), 2015: 211-227.

Ye, Zheng, Marcus Heldmann, and Thomas Munte. 2020. “Brain Imaging Evidence for Why We Are Numbed by Numbers.” Scientific Reports, 10(1): 1-6.

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