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Joy and Grief in Kenya

World news coverage of late has been filled with images of violence in the streets. Typically these are photographs of demonstrators battling with police or rival mobs. Sometimes there are scenes of looting or beating–often of the police laying into someone–or of spectators such as children or shopkeepers looking anxiously at the still unfolding madness around them. For all that, the many images look much the same, as if there were one endless demonstration playing out continually across the world, one long-running political spectacle in the theater of the Arab/African/Asian/Latin American street.

That may be why this image is at once familiar and yet scandalous:


Instead of the usual backdrop of the demonstration along an otherwise busy city street, here we see real wreakage amidst what otherwise was already a slum. And instead of the stock characters of earnest citizens and bullying cops, or outraged citizens and cautious cops, or mob frenzy and state terror, or any other political scenario, here we see a man exulting in the sheer ecstasy of destruction. An obscene truth is being revealed: what is violence and burning and horror to some is for others an experience of raw freedom as it can be perversely but powerfully known only through violent revenge and ruin. The sound track should be the Ode to Joy.

We’re not supposed to see that truth, and many others appear once that Pandora’s box is opened. Violence persists not only because so many are denied so much by so few, but also because it remains the best shot some have at feeling powerful. Freedom comes from democracy and prosperity, but the experience of freedom can be had by destroying those that have what others lack. I could go on, but you get the point. And that’s why it also is important to look at the next photo:


The Washington Post caption says, “A woman finds the body of her brother lying by the roadside in Nairobi’s Mathare suburb.” This also is a terrible picture. We see not violence but its aftermath of death. And, as if it matters, useless, sad, lonely, ignoble death. But that doesn’t matter. A person–a brother, son, friend, and more–has been destroyed. The terrible absence of the head could be an optical illusion, but one fears the worst. The boulder, which could have killed him and seems to be his severed head, lays there as if the reality of the body alone weren’t enough to communicate the harsh brutality and finality of his murder.

This also is a photo about softness, however. Other than the hard-edged boulder, the scene features draped clothing, a woman’s torso, her companion’s kindness, the lavender umbrella, and, of course, the elegiac rain. Nature has obliged to express the appropriate tone for a scene of mourning. And she is mourning, and by standing there without touching her brother she already is giving herself over to the utter helplessness that death lays on the living. Yet by being there and bearing witness to her brother and her loss, she stands for the return of human decency.

The joy in the first photo comes from hate. Hate is something harder, deeper, less changeable, and far more dangerous than other emotions. It also has no place in politics. Hate is in fact one border of the political: You can struggle to live with others, even to dominate them, or you can hate and kill them. Likewise, hate is felt toward groups, while anger is felt toward individuals (see Aristotle’s Rhetoric, 1382a). By seeing the senseless loss created by an individual laying dead on the street, the second photo returns us to a world of persons who deserve justice or protection but not violence.

Grief may be a deeply political emotion. Even though no one can reach the depths of pain felt by the individual stricken with grief, it calls forth empathy and can move us all to cross the borders of our estrangement from one another. It was grief, not killing or victory or glory that finally brought Achilles out of his rage against the Trojans to a moment of decency. Perhaps the recognition of grief can remind us that violence is not just another means for political expression. It is how we end up dancing in Hell.

Photographs by Simon Maina/Agence France-Presse-Getty Images and Boniface Mwangi/Bloomberg News.



Joy and Grief in Kenya


5 Responses

  1. a.m. says

    Very well put. Perhaps this resonates with me particularly today because I grew up in Nairobi and these images take me there in a powerful way.

    In particular, your observation that war and destruction can be an experience of pleasure to some is one that I have ruminated on for a long time. A major mistake in leftist politics has been the assumption that representing the brutality of war in photographs is an inherently anti-war action. For those who LIKE war, or are drawn to it, the exact opposite could just as easily be true. There are many people, photojournalists included, who would say that going to war was the most exciting time of their lives. There are whole threads devoted to this topic on some of the discussion boards for photojournalists.

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