I was thinking a bit more this morning about the photograph from 1918 that I posted on Thanksgiving of a sailor and a soldier being feted in 1918 by the City of New York. It strikes me that one of the reasons that we can relate so closely to an image like that is the crispness. Despite the fact that it is in black and white, because it is so crisp, sharp, and vibrant, we can relate to it as if it were in color. That could be any of us. We can relate to the happy feeling of the image. Therein, of course, lies part of the magic of photography in knocking down the barriers not only of space, but of time.
I was similarly struck this week by a photograph by Dita Alangkara of the AP showing “A Mother’s Relief,” a Typhoon Haiyan survivor kissing her baby as she waits to board an evacuation flight at the airport in Tacloban, Philippines, on November 22. The image evokes such empathy, conjuring up a complex set of emotions. We relate to the desperation to save herself and her child. We react to an overwhelming sense of relief.
I think that ultimately we have to also deal with the safe separation that photographs give us. We are not standing with that woman. There is an abstraction, which in itself is upsetting. We might watch a news-clip on the evening news of some terrible event and then go about our business – because its seems to have noting to so with us. This is more than the enuring effect of terrible pictures. It has also to do with the rectangular image frame. That is where these people are. They do not surround us in a vivid three-D, complete with sounds and smells. They disappear – or at best remain as a little scar on our brains – after we go back to eating. In a real sense this abstracting aspect of the image has not enhanced, but rather diminished, our fundamental humanity.