Lawrence Olivier once suggested that the key to acting was throwing yourself into your part, no matter that it might be as insignificant as the third spear carrier from the left. The characters in this scene exemplify that advice.
While the figure on the right stands guard, the figure the left picks up body parts in the aftermath of a suicide bombing in Islamabad, Pakistan. Neither action is likely to be decisive in the war spreading across that country, and each seems incidental even within the small scale of this photograph: the tiny pieces of flesh being retrieved appear to be no bigger than a fingernail, while the soldier is armed and ready in a street that is once again stabilized, even static, and almost empty. Yet they are playing their parts with complete concentration, as if the play really mattered.
This play does matter, of course, and yet the war there and in Afghanistan is haunted by the sense that a deadly serious game also is being played merely for show. The full panoply of state action appears, albeit too late to save those who were attacked, and on behalf of the restoration of a normalcy that was already a facade. Everything in the scene is meticulously modern: sharp uniforms, aluminum signage, yellow plastic crime scene tape (in English), even the flowers in the traffic median and the clear plastic gloves for the body-part detail. And yet none of these investments in civic order could keep someone from detonating a bomb among innocent people.
Thus, the image is troubling because of how it captures several deep tensions within state responses to insurgencies across the globe: tensions between attentiveness and incapacity, between restoring civic order and refusing to change, between collecting the dead and ignoring the demands of the living.
Because they have played their silent roles so well, these two minor players allow the scene to speak. The photograph depicts another instance of the normalization of violence in the 21st century. Nor can that violence be attributed wholly to the absent suicide bomber, for every part of the mise en scene declares that such violent acts are not a primitive residue, but have become fully integrated into a ritualized modernism. Unfortunately, it seems that too often the modern state is committed only to maintaining whatever imbalances feed its own display of power. If so, then any show of strength really is a sham.
Photograph by Adrees Latif/Reuters.