We could post about the war in Vietnam–oops, I mean Iraq–every day, but since continuing the quagmire depends on a loss of perspective, we should turn to other things as well. Like feet. Next week John and I will be giving a paper at a photography conference, where we will discuss why photojournalism features hands and feet when one could show more of the individual pictured. Like this:
This example may be somewhat more artistic than others we could show, and it has more of a pretext as it was part of a New York Times “Trendspotting” story on the custom at Reed College of going barefoot just about anywhere and any time. Even so, it’s not a typical news photo, which suggests that something else is going on.
Most of the images in the Trendspotting photo essay were mildly informative and less evocative. They showed students standing in line, standing in groups, and so forth. In each case we saw young people much as we often see them, and they happened to be without shoes. This much more distinctive photograph removes the student body (sorry, I couldn’t resist), but for the sharp focus on a pair of bare feet resting on a desk between books (front) and computer (middle). In the back of the photo we see the blurred top of a student’s head. He is wearing earphones, and the effect of the image comes in part from the contrast between the student’s heavily mediated experience–books, computer, digital music, even the food is processed–and the unmediated, elemental experience of resting his bare feet in the air. Whereas the other images showed more of the local culture through stock scenes such as standing in the lunch line, this one joins the special experience of higher education at an elite school with a seemingly universal symbol of youth.
Most people have neither occasion nor inclination to go around barefoot, or to study as much as is the norm at Reed. The photo does double duty at making the story significant: by foregrounding books, computer, and the obviously habitual posture of the student reading, the seeming frivolity of going barefoot–rather than working for a living–acquires a serious cast. The student isn’t working, but he is in training. Likewise, Reed’s foot fad stands in for the peculiar subculture of good higher education and makes it appealing through an iconography that channels the barefoot boy of American myth. Huckleberry Finn now goes to school, and leisure time is spent not on the river but drifting through the liberal arts.
Reed’s reputation includes both intensive study and liberal politics. Note the student’s longish hair. And so this post is about Iraq after all. Those feet are the feet of privilege and are not likely to wear combat boots. But there are places where privilege is used to learn, to discipline judgment, and prepare for both innovation and good stewardship. The press now provides many images of boots on the ground, and while honoring the sacrifice of working class youth it becomes too easy to forget their betrayal by those who benefited from the privileges of wealth without bothering to learn from history, deliberate carefully, and act with regard for others. We need boots on the ground, but we also need good education and good government. And not just for the few.
Photograph by Molly Gingras <email@example.com>.