This photograph from a hospital in Iraq has all the elements of comedy except the laughter.
A man and a boy–probably father and son–are awaiting treatment following a suicide truck bomb attack. They are the lucky ones.
I’ve posted before on the normalization of war, and recently on the importance of seeing and valuing the little things in life to resist war’s empire. This photo is both engaging and troubling precisely because it rests on the cusp between those two attitudes. On the one hand, it is a hard news photograph that documents the arbitrary, unjust violence of war. On the other hand, it is a soft news photograph that draws on the techniques of Life Magazine human interest portraiture.
The hard news photo shows civilians drenched in their own blood, having to make do with improvised bandages while waiting for care in an overburdened and decaying hospital. The soft news photo shows two social types in all too typical poses: the boy in t-shirt and blue jeans peeking out from the mess he’s made, as if sitting in the principal’s office at school. The adult holding a compress to his aching head as he wearily, dutifully accepts yet another of the responsibilities of parenting. The one furtively studies the adults around him while wondering if he’s going to catch it. The other makes the call cementing his complicity in the mess, and, oy, what a headache.
If this were the only photograph of the civil war, there would be much to fault. Why make light of violence; aren’t we denying their suffering and our own culpability? Surely we could be shown more of the horror of war and the arrogance, viciousness, allegiances, and betrayals that are its cause. This photo is part of a very large archive, however, and so it has a different role to play.
I don’t want to come down decisively on one side or the other regarding the photo’s ambiguity. I do want to feature something else, something that may be the reason the photo is ambiguous and why that itself can be a resource for photojournalism and public understanding. I think the humor in the photo–the comedy without laughter–is a testament to the humanity and dignity of the ordinary Iraqi citizen. Look again at the jeans, t-shirt, slouching posture, and expression of the boy, and the man’s sweater, watch, cellphone, and richly complicated look of responsibility: these are the habits of people not yet remade by war. That a man carefully buttoned his cuffs and put a sweater on, perhaps because nagged to do so, is a commitment to normalcy. That he can make the call as if after a car accident, exasperated but relieved–and not terrorized–that is an achievement.
Once again, the war against war can be seen in the details, and photography has to risk banalty and sentimentality to tell that story. What remains is for the rest of us to see it for what it is, and not simply conclude that war is a part of life and really not so bad after all. To do that would be another betrayal.
Photograph by Emad Matti/Associated Press and the Washington Post.