Through the Lens Essay

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Does a Picture Really Tell A Thousand Words?

According to John Berger, photographs from August 6th, 1945, are “images of
hell.” (316) That was the day the US dropped an atomic bomb on Japan, killing countless
innocent civilians and severely burning others. In his essay, “Hiroshima,” Berger faces
the idea that our culture has “abandoned” the “concept of evil.” (320) Countless pictures
seem to be the only thing left of that day, and from Berger’s perspective, the true meaning
of that event has been hidden, even though the facts are still in textbooks. The concept of
horrific pictures being taken plays an important role in Berger’s thoughts about
Hiroshima, because those pictures are what initially sparked his interest. However, the
idea of sharing of graphing pictures is called into question by Susan Sontag in her essay,
“Regarding the Pain of Others,” who points out that war photography should have some
form of censorship because of the effect it may have on victims or families who have lost
their loved ones.

While Berger doesn’t seem to promote graphic photography, it seems that from
his point of view, pictures such as these make a reality of what otherwise might just
become another page in our history books. “These paintings [by survivors] were shown
on Japanese television. Is it conceivable that the BBC would show these pictures on
Channel One at a peak hour?” (319) He makes a strong point that American television
would never show those pictures without “ reference to ‘political’ and ‘military’ realities”
(319) because it was our country that caused such destruction. Sontag almost reinforces
this idea by saying that “the camera brings the viewer close, too close,” (259) but at the
same time contradicts it by implying that war pictures sometimes provide inaccurate
information because of new age technology. Cameras and computers today have the
ability to enhance the main focus, what the photographer wants you to look at, and blur
out other details which may change a picture completely. “The real thing may not be
fearsome enough, and therefore needs to be enhanced; or reenacted more convincingly.”
(259) This brings out a good point, although cameras used in 1945 wouldn’t have that
kind of technology, but they can still be edited today.

That being said, a picture can be inaccurate in more ways than one. While the
Hiroshima pictures are heartbreaking to look at, Berger fails to address the fact that not
all war pictures tell the full story, along with what may have happened before and after
the picture was taken, and some may be taken completely out of context. Sontag brings in
this idea by talking about a famous picture of a South Vietnamese General shooting a
Vietcong suspect, which turned out to be staged. This idea calls Berger’s argument into
question, because it is unknown which pictures are “real” and which are mainly for
publicity purposes. We don’t know what happened before, after, or even what’s going on
outside the frame on a picture just by looking at it. Only the photographer and the people
present at that moment know the whole truth.

Although Sontag brings in some point that were missed by Berger, Sontag
reinforces Berger’s speculation that US television and newspapers only show what the
government wants the public to see, and nothing more. She adds that the military
promoted “images that illustrated America’s absolute military superiority over its
enemy.” (260) in the Gulf War in 1991. This idea really brings the true motives of our
nation out, which is really what Berger’s entire argument is based off of. He tries to make
the US look like bullies, killing innocent people to scare their government so that we look
like a strong country that defeats the bad guys and protects its...
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