Newspapers are not designed to be pondered at great length, but once in a while you can be stopped in your tracks, stunned, made to sit down slowly and simply stare. This photograph was one of those moments.
We may be in a hospital or a morgue or some other institutional building being used for that purpose. But the scene is both literal and mythic: we also are in the anteroom to the underworld. The finality of death could not be more complete, while the contrast with life is, shall we say, asymmetric. The world of the living is represented by tacky plastic chairs good only for killing time in the barren room, and by the bureaucratic document tucked under the belt on the shroud. The hard stone walls and floor, the gray tones, and the simple band of ornamentation all could be used in a mausoleum. The world of the living, it seems, is already outfitted for death.
A similar relationship holds between the modern equipment and ancient ritual. The corpse could have been wrapped thousands of years ago, while the metal in the gurney is already deteriorating. Although a 21st century scene–high volume processing, with his papers in order–modernity appears as no more than futile, ugly mechanization and a coordinate process of documentation. That documentation includes the photograph itself, and so the viewer is given a place equivalent to the empty chairs in the background. We become spectators of something that would be macabre but for its also being entirely anonymous and abstract.
Believe it or not, the story was about public opinion polling. Support for Al Qaeda is on the decline across the Middle East, perhaps because of revulsion over indiscriminate suicide bombings. This photo of one of the victims from a bombing in Pakistan accompanied the story. It obviously isn’t news, as the attack was in 2007. It remains a telling image, however.
Look again at the undercarriage of the gurney. It is worn as as if from centuries of use. As if there is never time to do anything but pick up the next body, and the next, and the next. Apparently it is not enough that everyone has to die: there still has to be the killing needed to feed the maw of inhumanity.
Photograph by Chris Schneider/Denver Post, via the Associated Press.