July 11, 2005

The Picture From London: Beyond The Mask


Fear mongers couldn’t have ordered up a better picture.

Considering the extent to which our culture is consumed with terrorism these days, it’s remarkable how little examination there is of terror as a psychological phenomenon.  You would think, if we were a little more sophisticated as a culture, we might spend more time understanding fear as an emotional reaction that lends itself all-to-easily to manipulation.  (Of course, going that route might also lead to greater inoculation, reducing the amount of raw material available for exploitation by politicians and the media).


Of the images that stood out from last week’s bombing in London, one of the most prominent was this one of "the mask." 

I asked one person I know why it was so distinctive.  She said:  It’s not that often that you see a news image that is completely unlike something you’ve seen before — that is visually new."   I agree.  But, I think there are probably deeper reasons why the shot has been so prominent. 

Primarily, it’s really scary. 

As most of us know, people are both threatened and enticed by fear.   There is literature available for all kinds of explanations.  For example, some people are attracted to fear in order to feel greater sensation.  Others are attracted to things like horror movies because they give the unknown a form and shape, making it more knowable and thus less threatening. 

The power of this image is that it terrifies both for what it shows and what it doesn’t. 

Seeing this woman bandaged, we can only guess what her injuries are.  Given the way the mind works, it really is not the kind of thing you want to leave up to the imagination. 

Of all things, the fact her eyes are blocked out is really chilling.  From early childhood, we learn to reassure and affirm ourselves by seeking out the eyes of others.  The fact we are prevented from doing so here is disturbing at the most primitive level.

Another fear element goes back to the point about the uniqueness of this image.  Usually when we see a mask (or any scary image), we can quickly put it in context, either by type (good guy/bad guy; hero; clown) or character (Batman, Jason, Hannibal Lecter, etc.)  The anxiety provoking thing here, however, is that this mask can’t be pigeon-holed.  (The fact is, it’s not quite possible to specify it’s real function.)  Is it about traumatic disfigurement, severe burns, invisibility, ghost, animal (notice how the nose structure suggests a dog or cow)?  The fact we can’t know ultimately suggests that perhaps nothing is really certain.   

The other disconcerting element involves the color.  The "mask" is white as cotton (as is the garment of the rescuer).  If white connotes purity and good (and — of course, the skin of white people), what is the implication here?  If the good and the pure (ignoring the fact this woman is dressed in black) can just drop into the underground and get fried, how terrifying is that for ordinary "good guys?" 

But, maybe the really frightening thing here is that the white/good/Western/Christian side is not so pure, after all.  Maybe it’s this mask of purity our leader’s wear (with it’s black-and-white obsession with "good versus evil") that is generating the largest part of the terror.

(image1:  Jane Mingay/AP. July 7, 2005 in YahooNews. image 2:  AP Photo. July 8, 2005 in YahooNews.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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