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Who's That Man in the Picture, II

Chicago Storm

According to the caption this is “a pedestrian [who] battles a heavy rain storm in downtown Chicago.” It could be Bob Hariman, but I happen to know that he is stuck in Evanston without electricity and working hard to bale out his rain drenched basement. Rather, what we see is an anonymous citizen doing his feeble best to stay dry in the wind blown rain while walking down a nondescript urban street. We are told it is in Chicago, but it could be in any city in the world. Indeed, is an altogether ordinary picture of an ordinary event on an ordinary public thoroughfare. And it was designated by the Washington Post for display as part of its “Day in Photos” slide show for 8/24/07, which obviously makes it something just a little bit more than ordinary.

Of course, it is highly unlikely that anyone will come forward claiming to be the man in the picture in the same way that individuals have lined up trying to prove that they are the sailor in the famous “Times Square Kiss.” But in some measure that is precisely part of its attraction. For while we tend to focus attention on those photographs that emphasize the recognizably great and the near great—political leaders and celebrities—or major crises and tragedies, a large portion of the photographs published in daily newspapers show ordinary citizens doing ordinary things, negotiating the travails of everyday life including everything from battling the weather to participating in civic and communal activities (e.g., voting, assisting at the PTA, participating in a charity car wash), to helping their neighbors, doing their jobs, nurturing their families, caring for their pets, celebrating local events and holidays, mourning their losses, and so on. Sometimes they are identified by name, but usually the particular identity of the people being represented doesn’t matter very much (except perhaps to the individuals pictured and their families and closest friends). What matters is that we have an opportunity to see ourselves in all of our sociality as members of a public or a community, that we have models of citizenship and political friendship, and that perhaps (and just perhaps) the world is made a little bit less strange.

It is a small point, to be sure, but one well worth emphasizing: A successful late modern democratic polity relies upon our ability to negotiate with a public full of strangers—people we don’t know personally and who are different from us in some measure and to some degree, but people with whom we also share ordinary and everyday similarities. The anonymity (or near anonymity) of many of the photographs that appear in our newspapers and other media is thus an important feature of photojournalism as a civic and public art which functions at its best to help us to see ourselves and to be seen in turn as citizens in a world full of strangers as we struggle to engage the stresses and strains of ordinary, everyday life.

Photo Credit: M. Spencer Green/AP


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Who's That Man in the Picture, II

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