Feeling the Pain: How Can the World Understand What Ukraine is Experiencing?

June 5, 2024
Sontag writes, humanity believed that if horrors were shown in their entirety, the viewer would grasp the disgust and madness of war.

Is it taking place in the wake of Russia's aggression against Ukraine? UkraineWorld spoke with Yaroslava Strikha, a Harvard PhD and Ukrainian translator.

As the translator of Susan Sontag's book, how would you interpret Ukraine's pain through the eyes of observers, using Susan Sontag's concept?

If we apply Sontag's concept, the most surprising aspect of how we visually represent, and thus comprehend, our traumatic experiences is that our iconography of suffering differs significantly from the conventions generally accepted in the Western world.

For example, in what situations do we most commonly see images of mutilated and/or dead bodies in Western media?

Typically, in post-colonial countries, victims of genocide in Rwanda or starving children in Sudan can be depicted without concealing any details of their suffering.

While this may help to raise sympathy for the victims and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid, Sontag contends that it essentially perpetuates the long-standing racist practice of depicting Africans or Asians as zoo animals in ethnological exhibitions in European cities (a dehumanising tradition that existed in Europe from the sixteenth to the early twentieth centuries).

In contrast, victims of terrorist attacks, wars, or accidents in the countries of the collective event are depicted in a much more delicate manner.

There is a greater emphasis on respect for their human dignity or the feelings of their loved ones.

As we recall, even the publication of a photo of a person jumping out of the Twin Towers in flames during the 9/11 terrorist attack caused intense debate, even though the victim in this case is barely recognisable.

In any case, this is a person whose entire life should not be reduced to a moment of agony for the sake of the public's morbid curiosity.

When the victim is seen as 'one of our own' rather than 'the other’ — not a person from another country, ethnicity, religion, etc.— suffering can no longer be reduced to an aesthetic object in a photographer's portfolio.

In Ukraine, as we can see, uncensored images of violence are not taboo.

Our social media and news are full of horrific images, ranging from photos of civilians taken after the de-occupation of Bucha to videos of torture and executions of Ukrainian prisoners (these videos were created by the enemy, but we also distribute them).

And this representation, it appears to me, sometimes goes beyond the photo-as-evidence-of-crime: in some cases, it is almost like the iconographic tradition of depicting saints' torment, when the attributes of suffering become a distinguishing mark and something that reveals your essence.

We are Ukrainians fighting, and uncensored images of our suffering demonstrate that.

That is why the issue of respect for the feelings of loved ones is rarely raised here, though there have been instances where relatives of the victims recognised them in these terrible materials, which is an experience that we would certainly prefer to prevent.

On the one hand, there is an understandable need to inform the international public about Russian crimes; however, we can fall into another trap described by Sontag: photographs of cruelty "demonstrate outrageous and unjust suffering that must be stopped."

At the same time, they acknowledge that it happens there.

The prevalence of such photographs and horrors unwittingly fuels the belief that tragedies are unavoidable in dark and backward, i.e. poor, parts of the world.

And I am afraid that our suffering will be overlooked.

We are almost invisible in the international space; we are not an oil-rich nation that can afford to spend a lot of money promoting our culture abroad.

I am pleased that there are projects attempting to raise Ukraine's visibility as more than just a victim of aggression: large exhibitions of Ukrainian modernism, including from the National Art Museum of Ukraine, in many European museums; and the Ukrainian Book Institute's Translate Ukraine programme, which supports translations of Ukrainian literature.

However, it will take some time for Western audiences to think, 'Oh, Ukraine is the country of my favourite sportsman or woman, the artist who is on my phone's screen saver, the writer about whom the buzz is about.'

Until then, the association that will reign supreme is: 'Ukraine is where they die, we only see Ukrainians dead, it's natural because dying is what they do best.'

How can we overcome the 'overload' of pain without creating a sense of otherness towards ourselves?

Sontag argues that the helplessness and inaction to which the average news viewer in front of a TV, laptop, or phone is condemned dulls their emotions the most.

The viewer who passively watches a continuous stream of horrific images interspersed with advertisements will eventually become desensitized to the suffering he or she cannot prevent.

I believe it is possible to counteract this by offering a clear plan of action at the critical moment when someone wants to help.

Ukraine appears to have made good use of spontaneous solidarity in the early days of the full-scale war.

Sympathetic viewers could share good viral content, drawing attention to our cause (think Khlyvniuk's Kalyna on an empty Sofia Square or the video of a lady telling the occupier to put a seed in his pocket and let it sprout when he died).

They could have donated to private charities or the state-owned United24, which actively engages well-known Western celebrities in fundraising.

They could have joined the chaotic grassroots movement NAFO, in which ordinary people self-organised to fight Russian propaganda via social media. So on and so forth.

People in general want to be positive heroes in history, and in the Ukrainian case, they had the opportunity to help us by feeling involved in correcting a great injustice.

For a number of reasons, Ukraine has not become a focal point of protest sentiment in the collective West, as Palestine has, but it has remained far less controversial, which undoubtedly has great advantages.

What is a more ethical perspective on war than compassion?

I'll allow myself to use a lengthy quote from Sontag to explain the problem with compassion: "As long as we feel compassion, we feel that we are not complicit in what causes suffering.

Our compassion declares that we are innocent but also powerless to change anything.

To put aside compassion for those who suffer from war and murderous policies in favour of reflecting on the place of our privilege on the same map as their suffering, and the possible connection between our privilege and their misery... is a task for which painful and moving images provide only the first impetus.

In other words, compassion is a way out for the lazy: my soul hurts for someone else, so it's not my fault; therefore, I don't have to do anything to change the situation.

Compassion without action does not change the situation and does not alleviate suffering.

Understanding the situation and taking real steps to help physically or informationally is more difficult, but also more ethical, so the viewer must understand that viewing shocking images, however emotionally difficult, should be the beginning of action, not the end".

Susan Sontag's text is a verdict on the concept of compassion. How is Ukraine attempting to translate the emotion of compassion into the concept of solidarity? Does the concept of just war matter here?

The concept of a just war does not come from Sontag's intellectual arsenal, but rather from her son David Rieff, an author, war correspondent, and great sympathiser of Ukraine who visits here every few months to express solidarity and give lectures.

It's actually a fairly simple concept derived from Augustine and Thomas Aquinas' texts, and we fit the bill: only war of defence is justified, all realistic peaceful options have been exhausted, the consequences of abandoning the fight are worse than the consequences of continuing the fight, and so on.

However, the world is a big place, and the news is constant, so even a just war somewhere far away is unlikely to be a reason to modify one's behaviour unless one can explain why it is not someone else's war—the war of others—but one's own.

It is a war for recognisable values and a recognisable world, and defeat will have negative consequences not only for Ukrainians but also for many others (of course, there should be arguments for each country, and Ukrainian spokespeople have generally been successful in finding approaches to different audiences).

Susan Sontag writes that humanity has long held the belief that if the full horror of war is shown, the viewer will realize how destructive and pointless war is. Why doesn't it happen?

I believe that in each case, the reasons for not caring about or even justifying a war will be different, and, unfortunately, Russia is quite adept at exploiting pain points and fault lines in other societies to undermine solidarity with its victims.

For example, we have seen how Russia has fuelled the Global South's reluctance to engage in collective action by reminding them of its colonial past; stirring up the anxieties of left-wing liberal youth in the US, who are dissatisfied with the US military adventures in the post-2001 war on terror; demonises its victims—successfully promoting the idea of Nazism rampant in Ukraine until 2022 or radical Islamism rampant among Assad's opponents in Syria.

However, let us hope that Sontag's book, which encourages readers to look beyond their initial emotional reactions, will help to educate more critical consumers of news and visual content.

Yaroslava Strikha, a Harvard PhD and Ukrainian translator