As I am writing today’s blog the world is mourning, or more accurately, celebrating the life of Nelson Mandella. Needless-to-say the news media is bombarding us with historic images – some of them very difficult to digest. They were always difficult to digest, always difficult to understand. None-the-less they are iconic.
The most striking image is of the Soweto Uprising on 16 June 1976, when over 500 people were shot dead by the security forces of the apartheid state. It was an uprising of high school students, who were protesting the imposition of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in township schools. One of the first to be killed was 12 year old Hector Pieterson. In a famous image by Sam Nzima he is carried away by a stranger, while his sister screams in combined terror and grief beside him. How do you relate to such a photographer? Is it a scene of martyrdom – a last deposition of Christ? Let me tell you that no mother raises her child to be a martyr. And it is on that level that we relate to such an image. It is symbolic of unbridled and intolerable oppression, where the victims are the walking dead, and there is really nothing left to lose.
Beyond that, I am struck by the similarity of the emotions that the Nzima’s photograph evokes in me and the emotion raised by a picture taken almost four years earlier to the day of the Hector Pieterson image (June 8, 1972). It shows a nine year old girl Phan Thị Kim Phúc running naked down a road near Trảng Bàng, Vietnam, after a napalm bomb was dropped on the village of Trảng Bàng by a plane of the Vietnam Air Force. That picture was by famous war photographer Nick Ut.
How are we meant to relate to that? How are we meant to relate to any of this? We have two pictures from separate wars. Both depict the suffering of children. This is why coming of age in the sixties and seventies was so painful. This is why coming of age today is so painful. The images are so powerful that they are numbing and drain you completely.