This one is heartbreaking.
I can’t help but think of a small bird lying in the dirt. Small yet once throbbing with life and song, now lifeless, soon to disappear entirely. Perhaps it’s the bright yellow–so unusual for a shroud yet somehow appropriate for a child–or the shape of a broken wing with the telltale blood, or the feet sticking out birdlike from beneath the body. Such a small, innocent thing. Do not speak here of the grandeur of war, or of forging character and testing national resolve.
There is a companion photograph, this one of the boy’s parents grieving outside the morgue.
In the first photo, the body is both there but not there. Here the body is not there but there–signified by the open coffin that will be used to put him away forever. Even the parents are both there and not there: physically present, but hopelessly distracted, lost in their grief, separate from each other, from anyone else, from themselves. The mother could be a wounded bird, flopping awkwardly in the dirt, not yet killed but crippled by the blow.
In the first photo, the bare feet evoke the vulnerability of a small animal but also are the one sure mark of a human body. Likewise, the hand extending into the second picture may be the one sign of human compassion in the scene. I don’t know, but it seems as if someone is cautioning the photographer to not get too close or otherwise intrude on the grieving parents. That small gesture holds out the promise that others could recognize their pain and respect their need to mourn. Thus the hand cues response to the photograph as a whole, suggesting that others might care for those being harmed by the war. The question remains whether that is a plausible hope or an empty gesture.
Photographs by Michale Kamber and Joao Silva for the New York Times.