Of course the fire makes the picture, but it’s the silhouettes that have the most to say. Which is interesting, as they are enigmatic.
Silhouettes often are, which may be why they can stand for a dimension of photographic representation that we often overlook. Behind the realism, there is a formalism that is especially important for visual meaning; and behind the detailed textures of specific people and places, there is embodiment of the impersonal poses and attitudes that structure social behavior.
This is not to choose one dimension of the image over another, but to respond as prompted by the photographer’s art. And by working into the image along that path, interpretation can lead to much more than documenting circumstances. Those circumstances may support reflection or become irrelevant for the time being (and only that), but they no longer are the primary content of the image.
So it is noteworthy that this is a photograph of firefighters in a backburning operation in New South Wales, but they could be in LA or Arizona or Greece or many other places. And if the poses still have the traces of British clothing and deportment, that may be fact or conjecture, but there is no need to make too much of it, even for a joke. Jokes to come to mind, however, and so the trace might be a good clue that something interesting is lodged there. Stiff upper lip and all that, you know. Say, do ya think the coach is due, mate? Aussies will howl, but like I said, the details don’t really matter.
So what does matter? That’s a double question here. First, what matters in the composition? The answer seems to be the stark contrast between the holocaust in the background and the calm, silent, reflective poses of the people in the foreground. Keeping their distance from one another, staring in different directions, hands in pockets, each seems to be lost in thought, while all of them seem to be standing as if waiting for a bus or train, strangers on street or platform, nothing out of the ordinary, just another day in the life. They stand as many stand while enduring the obligatory routines of traveling through impersonal public spaces, safe but not familiar with the strangers around them, biding time until they can get to where they are going, each on a private journey made possible by but still separate from what they have in common.
Even when what they have in common is territory on fire on a planet that is getting hotter every year. Which gets us to the second sense of what matters, that is, what the photo is about. The answer to this question takes us both closer to those in the picture and farthest from the actual circumstances of the moment. More detailed knowledge of the scene probably would verify that they are a close-knit, well-trained work crew, that the fire (which they set) is under control, and that no one is at risk because of their skill, knowledge of the terrain, available escape routes, and similar precautions. My take on the image moves away from all of that, to get closer to what is being shown.
What matters is that people can get used to anything, that Western culture will follow its commitment to controlling nature to the gates of hell, and that denial of global warming comes as easily as waiting at the bus stop because it comports so well with maintaining the routines which are among the few anchors we have in an era of rapid change. So, we can wait for the cosmic bus to come and take us away to some better place, or we can turn and look around, and look at each other.
What matters in the world today is that people stop pretending that there isn’t a fire raging in the background. The photo shows us just how close we can get while still in denial. “Just a back burn; we’ve got this one under control; move along now, these aren’t the causes you want.”
Even the beauty of the conflagration is there to help: if we could at least recognize that, it would be step forward. Fire is beautiful, but cinders–not so much. Take a look, while you still can.