Things are not going well in the global street these days. The migrations created by wars, civil wars, failed states, famines, and the sheer anarchy loosed on too much of the world is driving people to the brink–and beyond. Every day the slide shows at the major papers catalog new scenes of deprivation, along with the familiar demonstrations that soon follow. Hands in the air, pushing against the police line, nameless masses call out for justice and for bread. And then the news moves on to the typhoon or the earthquake or the election or the game. What else can it do?
It was against this background of constant yet distant disruption that the photograph below stood out.
The New York Times caption read, “In settlements around Johannesburg, the belongings of fleeing immigrants have been looted, and their dwellings torn apart by mobs. Left, a resident of Ramaphosa used a golf club to demolish a shack.” That’s right, a golf club.
Like Barthes‘ punctum, that club is the detail stabbing through the screen of cautious buffering that I bring to the news. Whereas the other photos became merely instances of familiar categories–the riot, the police response, the official Statement of Concern–this one disrupts deeper assumptions. What is going on? Does he actually golf? His form is pretty good: left foot planted, head down, letting the club follow the strong torque through the hips–this should be a a good rip.
OK, some will say that he probably stole the club. But not to sell it, apparently. Everything else in the scene fits the conventional story of poverty and the breakdown of social order. In that story, people throw rocks and set tires and cars and shanties on fire because, really, what else can they do? And in that story, the world is partitioned into safe zones and “trouble spots” sure to be somewhere else. We can play by the rules, keep score, be civil–“would you like to play through?” They can be left to their spasms of self-destruction.
Except for that damned club, which suggests that the two worlds overlap after all. If there can be golf in shantytown, then there could be riot at the country club. From that perspective, there is reason to pay attention to those behind you.
Photograph by Joao Silva/New York Times.