In 2003, Susan Sontag published her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others. In a sense, the book is an extended conversation with her earlier self, the one who had written one of the most trenchant and provocative works of photographic criticism, On Photography (1977). That book had noticed the multiplicity of images in world culture, and had marked the way that the creation and consumption of images had to a great extent displaced authentic experience. She quite sensibly concluded that when confronted by a welter of photographs, even the most morally persuasive ones—photographs of suffering—necessarily lose their impact. And the internet was years away.
By the time of Regarding the Pain of Others, written in the aftermath of her own experience in 1990s Sarajevo and the world’s fascination with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sontag could say that “citizens of modernity, consumers of violence as spectacle, adepts of proximity without risk, are schooled to be cynical about the possibility of sincerity (111).” This had essentially been her position in the 1970s, but she was quite willing now to contradict her younger self. To talk of “reality becoming a spectacle” was morally repugnant to her, and seemed to be the privilege of “a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment (110).”
In other words, Sontag had begun to think more about the power of photographs to move. They must “show something at its worst” in order to generate some kind of moral response. “For photographs to accuse, and possibly to alter conduct,” she wrote, “they must shock (27).” But the more distant the event depicted, the more difficult it is to generate that shock.
I thought of Sontag when reviewing recent history—and an event that did indeed shock—quite close to home. I have been working with my students on a contemporary history exhibition called Hard Times in the OC: Voices from the Great Recession, opening at the Oakland Museum of California May 18. The project is an opportunity to look at the ways southern Californians weathered the economic crisis that crested in 2008 and whose impact has reverberated ever since. As we thought about how to deal with the problem of homelessness in our region, I could not help but think of an image of suffering, the image of a homeless man, Kelly Thomas. What does his story have to do with the larger crisis? The exhibition would feature material from oral history interviews conducted by the students. They could not interview Kelly Thomas.
If you do an image search for Kelly Thomas, you will soon find a photograph that horrified this community. Thomas is in a hospital bed. In the photograph, he is alive. He would soon not be, and it is easy to see why. It is what Sontag would have called a didactic photograph, one distributed in the name of “collective instruction (85).” Publicized via the now-dormant blog Friends for Fullerton’s Future, it focused attention on Thomas’s encounter with several Fullerton police officers on the night of July 5, 2011. In a performance of their duties captured by a security video camera, several police officers, responding to a report of a car vandal, confronted Thomas near a downtown bus stop. When Thomas did not show appropriate signs of deference to their authority, they threatened him with bodily harm. When Thomas still did not respond as they wished, the officers commenced beating him for nearly ten minutes.
Kelly Thomas, diagnosed with schizophrenia and without a home for many years, may be heard on the video crying out for this father (ironically enough, a former Fullerton police officer) to save him. But there would be no such salvation for Thomas. Medical personnel soon arrived and began checking on the officers. Then they saw Thomas. His parents removed him from life support on July 11, but not before taking his photograph.
The incident roiled Fullerton, leading to accusations of a police cover-up (the video was withheld for some time despite public protest), the eventual resignation of the police chief, the 2012 recall of three members of the city council in a landslide vote, and criminal charges for three officers for involuntary manslaughter and the use of excessive force. A judge recently ordered that two of the officers stand trial, indicating that Thomas had acted in self-defense when threatened. A lawsuit charges that a restaurant falsely reported Thomas as a car vandal. The legal wranglings are well on their way to the two-year mark since the original incident.
Recession-based cuts to social services and mental health care have meant worsened conditions for California’s homeless. Amid angry protests and political upheaval in Fullerton, a city-appointed task force in 2012 recommended additional police training for dealing with mentally ill citizens as well as greater support from the city for homeless and mentally ill residents, including the building of a new homeless shelter.
Two years after his death, residents maintain an informal memorial to Thomas near the location of the assault. Rather than show images from the incident itself in Hard Times in the OC, we decided that photographs of the memorial were more appropriate. Those images of Thomas’s last days had already performed the work their distributors intended. They cannot bring Kelly Thomas back. In the aftermath of Kelly Thomas, the goad to conscience Sontag recognized in 2003 was something Fullerton desperately needed, and if the knowledge gained was a brand of sentimental humanism, as she might have charged back in 1977, it beats the alternative, which was to not only feel nothing but to do nothing. Will this be the end of the story? The makeshift memorial reminds us to keep asking.
On Photography (1977) and Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). The Library of America recently announced a volume of her work called Essays of the 1960s and 70s (Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will, On Photography, Illness as Metaphor).