This photograph may be one of the more ordinary images in recent photojournalism, and all the more eloquent for that.
The caption stated that “A labourer rests near his makeshift tent home in a park” in Charlotte, North Carolina. Attentive readers will have noticed the British spelling (and usage), and the image did come from an online slide show at The Guardian. My guess is that American papers weren’t so quick to run the photo, but can you blame them? There is nothing dramatic or otherwise notable anywhere in the frame. The focus is diffused from the man in the foreground across the darkened, nondescript scene and then up into the spare stand of trees and the vague sky. The area on the ground is littered with generic consumer items, while the background vista is a mess of random tree trunks, scrawny branches poking every which way, and brown leaves not yet scattered. The scene is utterly without visual interest, while nothing is happening–or likely to happen.
Attentive viewers may have noticed another dimension to the scene, however. There are several tensions, subtle yet troubling, that can guide reflection. First, there is more to the man, if you will look for it. He is brooding it seems, an attitude that resonates with the long shadows from the late afternoon sun. And that sunlight gilds his face and his hand: the face is taut with interior life, and the gesture and veins of his hand suggest strength and skill. Together they may signify the dignity of labor, and so this photograph can channel the realism and progressive sentiments of genre painting. He is not at work, however, or have enough of a job to afford shelter, and so the worker’s capable hands (and strong back) are immobilized.
Note also the contrast between his personal possessions and the unkept woodland. His clothes are clean while laundry is draped on a clothesline, there is a symmetrical order to the campsite, and it looks as if a calendar and similar items are tacked to the tree trunk on the right. What should be natural setting has taken on the look of domesticity, and what should be a temporary site–a campground, as if for a weekend getaway–is becoming the place where he may spend the winter.
So it is that the banality of the photograph is the vehicle for its documentary truth. What we are seeing is a man settling into a “new normal.” He is homeless, even if he is working he won’t have any job security, and his ability to cope, adapt, keep his shirt clean, and otherwise be ready to move up may do no more than keep him from slipping lower yet.
Photograph by Carlos Barria/Reuters.