| Back to gregoryharms.com |

January 2, 2015

Meditation on a photograph

I caught this photograph in Tuesday's New York Times. Owing to the subject matter I study and write about, I see many such photos in a given week. However, this one gave me unusual pause for thought. Maybe it was the photo, my mood, or the time of year, perhaps a combination of all three.

© 2014 Umit Bektas/Reuters

On first glance, the photo offers, if uncomfortably, a certain beauty. In the work of the French Realists of the mid-nineteenth century, painters such as Gustave Courbet and Jean-Francois Millet demonstrated that one could artistically represent the mundane, the dreary, the heartbreaking. Yet, to stay in the mode of the aesthetic is to miss the point. The idea is to become informed by the artwork, to allow it to work on you, to let it raise an awareness of what other people are going through.

In a contemporary context, the work of noted photojournalist James Nachtwey comes to mind (I recommend watching the documentary on him, entitled War Photographer). Also a source of criticism of him and his photography, Nachtwey creates a kind of poignant beauty out of human suffering. The disapproval he has garnered, that he is merely using pain and misery to create art, is unrealistic; playwrights, novelists, poets, painters, and filmmakers have used it throughout history. What Nachtwey and others are doing is simply going to the source to generate metaphors. It's journalism that becomes art, which then becomes journalism on a more conceptual plane. It's no longer a boy in Chechnya or a refugee clinic in Rwanda: it's a prompt, a question, an inducement to think, and hopefully act.

As Nachtwey says in War Photographer, his decision to become a photographer was to become a war photographer. He doesn't separate the two, and it wouldn't occur to him to take pictures of anything else but human suffering.

Hearing him make this point (in a tiny screening room at the Music Box in Chicago) made an impact on me. It was 2002, and I was embarking on what would become an extended journey to the present of research and writing. The 9/11 experience was fresh and still in the air, and I had begun work on my first book. My approach hasn't changed because the motivating force has not changed: the truism that an educated population sees more clearly.

Things have improved. New and better news sources have emerged. (Al Jazeera even has a domestic channel.) Americans have become slightly more familiar with the Middle East, though the catalyst for this awareness was two long, expensive, and futile wars. The occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq lasted over a decade after 9/11 and had nothing to do with 9/11. An internationally coordinated police action would have been sufficient for handling the al-Qaida/Osama bin Laden issue. And Iraq was simply opportunism and the projection of US military power.

Though these conflicts have been formally concluded, their effects are very much alive. When geopolitical systems are destabilized, byproducts can be anticipated. Left to develop on their own—perhaps with international support—Afghanistan and Iraq would likely be very different countries. For one, they would be countries. For another, the list of degenerate groups such as the Taliban, al-Qaida, ISIS, and others, would either not have formed or lacked a place to do so.

The Middle East as it exists is new. Its constituent countries are not quite a hundred years old, some much less so. Moreover, it is a highly manipulated region. For that matter, it was manipulation that created these countries in the first place. When one traces the history of the region from roughly 1920 to the present, the current warfare and political tensions that span the region are the product of how the region was created, how it's been controlled internally, and how it's been brutally interfered with by, principally, the United States. Before the 1920s and 1930s, what was the Ottoman Middle East had been a relatively stable place for centuries. Given this fact, we can easily dismiss erroneous assertions about Arab culture and Islam being the cause of Middle Eastern volatility.

To see where things took a turn for the worse, one can begin with this photograph. In it, we can see the results of history, the results of European and US policy. We can see the genesis of terrorism, where anguish and humiliation can turn to rage. Also, and perhaps most importantly, the picture conveys the reality—and it is a reality—that people would much rather spend their time doing something else.

The people in the photo are Syrian refugees living in Turkey, but could be anyone. The image is now a metaphor. Upon contemplation of it, I can't help but ask broad questions. And the questions lead back to me. I skip over the notion that, yes, under different circumstances, "that could be me." This is a valid and humane thought, but can easily lead to simply being grateful and "appreciating what you have." In these matters, my moral evaluation doesn't leave me with a sense of comfort or solace, far from it.

Photo source: Ceylan Yeginsu, "Turkey Strengthens Rights of Syrian Refugees," New York Times, Dec. 30, 2014, page A4.

Blog Archive