I saw a photo the other day. Not just any photo. A photo judged by a group of some of the world’s most respected media professionals as being exceptional, and the best piece of spontaneous photojournalism last year.
It’s an astounding photo. I’m not going to show it here. I’m not even going to link to it. I’m not doing that, because it’s one of the most confronting images I’ve come across, and as a viewer you have to make your own deliberate decision to see something like it. That said- possibly because of how deeply it touched me- I wanted to talk a little about it.
To say that the image is one of the best pieces of ‘spot news photography’ of last year isn’t hard to justify when you look at the context. The photographer- an Afghan by the name of Masoud Hossaini, working for the AFP- took the image mere moments after a suicide bomber detonated his vest at a shrine in Kabul, killing seventy people. If taking a photo under those circumstances doesn’t qualify you for some serious kudos, I don’t know what does.
The photo shows a twelve-year old girl. Within the frame, she is standing, almost alone. She’s dressed in a shiny green shalwar kameez with white trousers- her version of Sunday best. Heaped about her feet and slumped against the side of the street are bodies. Some appear stunned or even just sleeping. Others are violently dead. Many are obviously small children. She is standing with her mouth open, frozen in a terrified scream, her body rigid with fear.
Photography- good photography- is all about catching a moment and, through that moment, telling a story. It’s a medium that works because the visual image- far quicker than the written word- connects deeply with the emotions and psyche of the viewer. The better the photo, the deeper the connection.
Some photography seeks this end by using shock. The violent gore of some war photography, the piteous misery captured by some charities’ images (so-called ‘poverty porn’)- even pornography proper use this technique. It’s a cheap-shot, a sucker-punch. It jolts the viewer, compels them to stare, or look away quickly, often infusing them with a sense of guilt or revulsion.
In my opinion, as photography, it fails.
It fails, because a true connection requires just that- a lasting interaction. It’s like the difference between a scream, or holding somebody sobbing in your arms. Both events may be difficult, distressing, even triggered by the same event. One triggers a primal reaction to flee or confront. The other gives birth to narrative.
Beauty in photography, as in any other aspect of life, is defined by the viewer. Likewise, an image that may be shocking to one person, to another is no more than a slice of life on celluloid or CMOS.
I love photography, as followers of this site (who have been patient in waiting for new posts to emerge) know. In my chosen career as an aid worker, I have been exposed, both indirectly and directly, to many of the horrific things that people do to one another, and as such, I am probably less easily shocked than some, and by the same token moreso than others.
The photo, without a doubt, is terrible. It captures a truly horrific moment, one which I would wish on nobody, and under no circumstances a young child. And yet (hence the writing of this post) I found it connected with me in a way that wouldn’t leave me. Haunting. Not just the shallow shock of a nasty image. It’s been something deeper. A wrestling. Triggering a conversation within myself that, ultimately, I just had to write to get it out of me.
Just as a good photo should, I suppose.
What the photo captures, beyond the horror, and the tragedy, and the intense gravity of emotion on young Tarana’s face, is the deep intimacy of war.
And I think that’s what I took from it. It sounds very simple. But it resonated. It’s not a new thought for me. For most of the last ten years I have interfaced, in one form or another, with most of the major war-zones in the world, and a good portion of that has been through the medium of peoples’ own stories. Another time, perhaps, I will find the courage to muse on the effect that that’s had on me. But what this photo struck me with is that the event- interaction, process, dynamic- that we call war touches us profoundly, intimately, on a unique and personal level.
War is numbers. Statistics. It’s twenty thousand dead Tamils on a beach. It’s four thousand troops returned home in caskets beneath sombre flags. It’s thousands of pounds of ordnance dropped and it’s dozens of enemy combatants annihilated and it’s the number of limbs destroyed by roadside bombs and landmines.
War is an idea. It’s a concept. It stays at a distance where we can dissaprove of it, or fear it, where we can wish it away, or hope, in an analytical, clinical sense, that our side wins, without ever really embracing the implications of that desire.
But war mustn’t be that. It’s so much closer than that. It’s an ever-expanding network of deeply personal moments at that most critical, fundamental intersection- life, and death. And if we lose touch with that- when we lose touch with that- that’s when war becomes easy.
You find it in the text messages sent by a civilian trapped beneath artillery fire, watching members of his community torn to pieces by burning shrapnel.
It’s in the way warm blood splashed over your hands and arms quickly cools in the air where you hold your colleague or comrade or just a complete stranger, passing by at the wrong moment.
It’s in the ringing in the ears, that pressurized tinitus left behind the concussion-wave of a nearby explosion, or the intense silence after something terrible has happened, that brief, heady moment of disbelief before reflex or adrenaline has had the chance to react.
It’s a hundred million different stories, each one a moment in which that coin was tossed, and life came up, or it didn’t, but whatever the outcome, a soul- one, individual, indivisible soul, as real to its owner as mine is to me and yours is to you- was touched as if by fire.
And it’s a girl, standing rigid with fear, her celebration clothes dotted with blood as she screams over the bodies of her family, her companions, people who moments before had been walking and talking and living their lives as though they would stretch on forever.
That’s the journey Masoud Hossaini’s photo, eventually, took me on. Not a jolt of shock or revulsion, designed to titilate or terrify. Not just a passing image for consumption, some window-dressing for a page or two of carefully crafted prose. No, this was a connection that spoke to me of the intimate moments of deep human suffering that joined together make up this terrible event called war. A reminder that war- and beyond, all of life- is a tapestry of human experience- valuable, legitimate, precious experience- and not just a balance sheet or a running tally. And when I say reminder, I don’t mean an intellectual footnote. Rather I mean a seed that was planted, which with time (even brief time) grew tangled, and which forced me to wrestle a little while until some part of its message stayed behind in my soul.
This is what photography- great photography- truly is.
This is why people get Pulitzers.
UPDATE 23/4/12: In my original post I meant to reference the other photographer who walked away with a Pulitzer this year, his for Feature photojournalism. Craig Walker’s series of Iraq war veteran Scott Ostrom, struggling to reintegrate into US culture while battling Post Traumatic-Stress Disorder, is an incredibly powerful series in a very different way. Walker’s capture of raw and deeply moving emotion is an incredible series that I highly recommend, and do offer the link to here. Heart-rending, but such an important message for it.