The most powerful news images are the ones which resonate equally on a political, psychological, emotional and visual level.
This photo, by Todd Heisler of The Rocky Mountain News, was one of the winners in the just concluded World Press photo contest. I have seen this shot a number of times this year, and it continues to fascinate — and trouble. We see eight passenger windows above a cargo hold at Reno Airport where marines are preparing to unload the casket of a fallen comrade, 2nd Lt. James Cathey. (The full size — better for the small details — is available here.)
This is an extraordinarily robust image, one that echoes in any number of directions. As I read it, it makes an eloquent statement about the failure/inability of Americans to bear witness to the Iraq war, particularly the human cost. (The star spangled cues linking the parties to each other and to country are almost too laden. The plane’s signature color scheme evokes a non-verbal association to “American” Airlines. The red, white and blue, meanwhile, binds the ribbon of passengers — assumably your everyday Americans — to the flag draped casket to the uniformed soldiers.)
Because the figures are interconnected under the patriotic banner — and because we as viewers (especially as Americans) are visually bound to the situation — and because we have been made witness to this intimate and emotional evidence of loss, the photo quietly raises the question whether other Americans (as symbolized by this sample of eight) can see it too.
The image is a poignant reminder that the war, and its bleeding, rests directly under the nose of every one of us. (There is a much to read from that point out. The fact these passengers peer from lit, enclosed space into the night, means they can barely see. As a tease, the position of man #7 almost suggests he can see what’s below. To me, the gestures of passengers #1, 3 and 5 suggest model agency head shots — suggesting everyday narcissistic tendencies and the Administration’s 9/11 mantra that the highest expression of patriotism is to go shop.)
Though the passengers even share the same body with Lt. Cathey, however, he remains hidden away in plain sight.
To look over the entire WPP award site, which I highly recommend, you can start with the photo gallery here.
(image: Todd Heisler/The Rocky Mountain News/Polaris. worldpressphoto.com)