June 13, 2005

Orchestra Fan


One of the most outrageous charges against liberals is that we are invested in Iraq devolving into mayhem.

From my perspective however, I don’t see why we can’t fault the Administration for fabricating a war rationale, pinpoint much of the mayhem as true evidence of an incoherent war/post-war strategy, and, at the same time, celebrate the spirit and effort of the Iraqi people to get on their feet.

A week ago Monday, I ran photographer Alan Chin’s image of a U.S./Iraqi raid in Mahmudiya that appeared in the NYTimes (Punching Up The Orange link). This past Thursday, I offered a shot documenting the scene of a suicide attack that Alan captured this past April (As Simple As That – link).  In both posts, Alan also joined us from Baghdad to offer background and take on some difficult questions in the Comment thread. 

(Making things still more interesting, we were also joined in the latter discussion by Najma, the 17-year old author of "A Star from Mosul," which is one of the most recognized blogs from Iraq.  Najma, in fact, has agreed to lend feedback to an image or two and take questions at the BAG sometime in the next few weeks.)

Switching gears today, I offer you Alan Chin’s latest published image, which appeared in Sunday’s NYTimes on page A6, as well as on-line (In Midst of War’s Clamor, Music Soothes Iraqi Souls – link).  The picture was taken at a performance of the Iraqi National Symphony in Baghdad on Saturday, the orchestra’s first large concert since Spring 2004. 

I offer these images because this story — in breaking a long and
steady string of violent and depressing reports from Iraq — is almost
jarring in its celebration of collective accord. What follows is a Q. and A.
regarding this photo from an email exchange with Mr. Chin. Although
it’s just an excerpt, what you get from Alan — maybe even more than
from the pictures — is just how powerful a bit of normalcy can be.
(War permitting, I’m hoping Alan will also be available to respond to
questions and comments in the discussion thread.)

BAG: Did you get any sense from this woman that she reflected both the tension of war and a relief for being at the concert?

A.C.: Well I was kind of behind her. But yes, there was the
combined tension of war and relief in the room. You could feel it, that
people had made a real effort to come.

BAG: Does the “empty space” in this image help convey a less tension-filled mood?

A.C.: Actually, the aspect I like is her fan, because the
air-conditioning was broken or at [least] inadequate and it gives an
idea that it was hot in there. But more importantly, I like the
evocation, the nostalgia, the refined gentility of a lady at the
theater with her fan, her culture. A culture which came from Europe but
which we no longer practice much. Yet at a formal event like this, an
orchestra, like you might see at Lincoln Center, she took her fan, not
just to cool herself off, but because that is what a lady does. She
doesn’t fan herself with the program or a newspaper. She pulls out her

BAG: The article notes that there are snipers perched on the
balcony and guards frisking the patrons as they enter. It also details
how 21 guards worked the event in three shifts, far exceeding the 6
guards who handled the job prior to the war. I’m thinking about the
American audience which — upon reading this — might hanker for a shot
with the woman and the snipers or guys with guns.

A.C.: Frankly, security guards at a place like this, as
opposed to soldiers, do not allow themselves to be photographed very
often. This is understandable because they are in fixed locations,
easily recognized and tracked. And also frankly, I do not need to have
guns in every photo I take. The armed men were there, of course. To you
in America and to the reader of the story, that is an important fact.
But to me as the photographer I cared more about the audience and the
musicians, this was about them, not about the guns. This concert took
place despite guns, not because of them. So why focus on the guns?

BAG:  When you wrote, you said the concert was “an entirely pleasant affair.”

A.C.: Look, here’s an orchestra playing Beethoven’s Egmont
Overture, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, and Dvorak’s subtle and
sublime cello concerto. After I took my pictures I put my camera away
and just listened. How do you do what you do every day here, bang bang,
and walk into a theater and listen to this music that floats to you? I
closed my eyes and the drama, the sheer weight and wonder of it, the
power, the beauty, overwhelmed me. Both the reporter and I left the
concert in the best mood either of us had been in for a long time.


I wouldn’t leave without at least one comment about this second image.
Although it might not be obvious to tell, I particularly admire the
fact the musicians are making due with plastic lawn chairs.

It would seem that — on such an occasion — they would be content with even less.

(images: Alan Chin for The New York Times. June 12, 2005 in nyt.com)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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