The trope of “youthful innocence” is a common photojournalistic convention, often marked by photographic representations of children playing as if they were adults. Such images can range from the somewhat ordinary and everyday—a young girl selling lemonade to passersby for .10¢ a cup—to the extraordinary—a young boy saluting the passing caisson of his assassinated father. But in almost every instance what we are being invited to see is a glimpse into a generational future animated by a nostalgia for the purity and innocence of youth unencumbered by the world of experience. And even when the world of experience insinuates itself, as with the John-John salute, the point of the photograph seems to be that what these children will become is forecast by how they manage the tension between innocence and experience. In recent time we have been inundated with images of Middle Eastern children “playing” with guns and other weapons of war, and in this context the trope has become a harbinger of a threatening and dystopian world.
I emphasize the word “playing” in the last sentence because, as with the photograph above, the romance of youthful inexperience is transformed into a tragic mythos in which all sense of the child as behaving “as if” an adult has been obliterated, and with it, all hope that the next generation can see its way to a better or more peaceful future. The above image is of a group of “young supporters of the Islamic Jihad movement,” marching at a rally in Gaza City to show “solidarity with the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.” The toy guns and uniforms are clearly pronounced and thus underscore the potential militancy of the image, but they are not the key signifiers of the shift from romance to tragedy. To take the full measure of force of the symbolic transformation you have to look at their facial expressions, and more specifically their eyes, which teeter between being altogether vacant and deadly serious, and in either case are wholly dissociated from our expectations of an otherwise idealized world of youthful innocence.
What clearly marks this and other such photographs from the Middle East is the presumption of their sheer otherness. These simply could not be “our” children for they lack any and all sense of the purity or carefree joy of childhood that presumes to define the western world. Their experience is not ours. The conclusion is wrong, or perhaps more accurately, wrong headed, but what is important to remember is that the idealized, romantic mythos of the relationship between worldly experience and youthful innocence is every bit as much a fiction as its tragic transformation, and that indeed, the former is ever at risk of morphing into the other.
Photo Credit: Ali Ali/EPA/WSJ