Yesterday the MacArthur Foundation announced the selection of the MacArthur Fellows for 2009. The recipients of this so-called “genius award” included Lynsey Addario, a photojournalist based in Istanbul, Turkey. Addario’s portfolio includes work from the Middle East, Africa, India, and elsewhere. I won’t pretend to summarize her work, but she is adept at exposing how seemingly exotic cultures are but habitats where people contend with the burdens of ordinary life, and how individuals can be raised, trapped, and killed within worlds not of their own making.
Some of her photographs capture something else as well: what might be called the weight of history. This picture or a soldier and woman in Darfur provides a vivid example. The image is striking for several reasons, including the strong colors against an austere background, the woman’s gesture of self-protection, and her placement within the implicit tryptych of man, woman, equipment. She is the center of the photograph, and might be seen as the primary reason for the other two elements of this social whole; at the same time, she provides only a temporary separation between the man and his weapons, and so her vulnerability is all the more telling.
The genius of the the photo, however, comes from the the downward slump of his head and hers. Then seem pulled down, as if subject not only to the gravity weighing down the equipment but also to some other, terrible, collective pressure. Like gravity, it can’t be seen, but it is a human rather than a merely physical force. Perhaps their retail goods of basketball jersey and consumer tote cue our sense that their collective burden is social and psychological and not just the fatigue of nomadic life. Like the dust in the sky, a crushing fate seems to be gathering, weighing them down, sure to grind them under as help never arrives.
That weight bears down wherever people are abandoned to war, poverty, and other political disasters. It can beat down like the desert sun or suffocate like a sandstorm, but it is sure to wear away the soul. Here we see it again, this time in the stooped, tired gait of a policeman in Baghdad. He appears young but is already aged in his bones, sagging in the joints, made dumb by the stupid routines of ritualized predation and continuing wastage. He does what he can–looking around, walking his beat, trying to stay alive–but he’s already carrying too much to escape.
The weight of history is so heavy for two reasons. One is that some people have to carry so much of it. The other is that it is made up of all the mistakes, unintended consequences, vile decisions, vicious acts, and–above all–all the indifference of everyone else.
Photographs by Lynsey Addario.