The scene is actually a street in war torn Aleppo, where Syria’s rich cultural and historical legacy is being rendered in rubble and ashes by a revolution that seemingly knows no bounds or ends, but truth to tell it could be any number of war torn countries, now and in the recent past. At first glance the man walking away from the viewer appears to be carrying a grenade launcher or some other kind of weapon, cautiously at the ready. But on closer inspection – and with the help of a caption – it turns out he is actually carrying a guitar. And not just carrying it, but actually playing it as he walks down the street.
The photograph is extraordinary in this regard, for while the individual dominates the scene, so much hinges on whether we see a guitar or a weapon. If the first, we might be inclined to cast him as something of a troubadour, strolling down the street, feeling safe, or at least safe enough to express himself on a deserted public thoroughfare with music; if the second, we might be inclined to see him advancing cautiously, nervously, through a war zone, vigilant against the dangers that presumably hide behind closed doors and shuttered windows or on rooftops.
But of course even in the first case we cannot assume that he feels too safe, as signaled by the automatic weapon he carries slung over his right shoulder, apparently ready to choose to employ one or the other as conditions dictate. And so perhaps what see really is not a dialectic between the instruments of artistic expression and war so much as an allegory for the human condition of everyman, tragically faced with the choice for how he might engage and seek to (re)make the world, through art or violence. Sadly (or is it tragically?), the photograph offers no real resolution to this problem. But what it does is to remind us of the possibility of the choice. And it is that possibility—perhaps only that possibility—that enables the hope to keep walking down such corridors.
Photo Credit: Stringer/Reuters