Susan Sontag, the social critic, human rights activist, and author whose theories and writing influenced the way many perceive the role of photography and modern photojournalism, died of leukemia today in her hometown, New York City. She was 71.
Sontag’s classic book On Photography (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973) investigated the role of images in society, the intersection of news and "art," and the visual depiction of war and disaster. Two decades later she refuted some of her previous ideas in a new book, Regarding the Pain of Others (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), where she called into question the use and meaning of images, particularly those of war and suffering, and the motivations of those who make and view the images.
In an essay "Regarding the Torture of Others" in The New York Times in May 2004, Sontag wrote about the photographs of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib jail in Baghdad, that the snapshots — taken by soldiers, not photojournalists — would likely become the defining images of the Iraqi war. She wrote, "For a long time — at least six decades — photographs have laid down the tracks of how important conflicts are judged and remembered. The Western memory museum is now mostly a visual one. Photographs have an insuperable power to determine what we recall of events, and it now seems probably that the defining association of people everywhere with the war that the United States launched pre-emptively in Iraq last year will be photographs of torture of Iraqi prisoners by Americans in the most infamous of Saddam Hussein’s prisons, Abu Ghraib."
In the Times essay she also wrote, "The pictures taken by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib, however, reflect a shift in the use made of pictures — less objects to be saved than messages to be disseminated, circulated."
Known to the photography world mostly for On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag’s 17 books — which have been translated into 32 languages — covered a much broader range of topics than just photography. She wrote about politics, pornography, science fiction, and penned four novels. Her work included plays and film scripts and essays for The New Yorker, Granta, and other literary magazines. She wrote and directed four feature-length films, as well as stage plays in the United States and Europe. Among many career awards she won the National Book Critics Circle award in 1977 for On Photography, and the American National Book Award in 2000 for In America, a portrait of the new west of 1876.
Born in New York City on January 16, 1933, Sontag grew up in Arizona and California before going to college at the University of Chicago. She did graduate studies at Harvard, Saint Anne’s College at Oxford, and later at the University of Paris. The Times of London wrote, "Susan Sontag was the most provocative and prolific of the new wave of New York intellectuals who came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s. Her writing during those years of enormous cultural and political change earned her the sobriquet of ‘the evangelist of the new.'"
Sontag died this morning at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, a spokesperson for the hospital told the Associated Press. Sontag’s son, David Rieff, said his mother died from complications caused by acute myelogenous leukemia, and that she had battled cancer on and off since the 1970s, AP reported.
The February 2005 issue of News Photographer magazine will feature a story about Sontag and an examination of On Photography andRegarding the Pain of Others by New York City writer Stephen Wolgast.