Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
January 25, 2008

Painted Construction Markings

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Last week, I had the pleasure of hanging out a bit with photographers Spencer Platt, David Butow, and BNN contributer Nina Berman.  As winners in last year’s World Press Photo competition, the three were participating in a two-day program at USC’s Annenberg School in conjunction with the WP exhibition.

Spencer was the “Photo of the Year” winner, and Nina earned first place in the portrait category for her “Marine Wedding” image — which I posted after the announcement, and which we discussed extensively here at The BAG.  It’s David’s shot, however — the second place winner in the “Daily Life” category, behind Spencer’s — that I’ve spent a good bit of time looking at, and am pleased to finally share with you.

My meeting David though, besides being a pleasure, also offered a healthy reminder about the subjectivity of social and political imagery.

To set the table, you have to understand that most people who see this photo — including the World Press judges — are also provided the following description:

Pedestrians cross a section of Wall Street covered in painted construction markings, near the New York Stock Exchange, shortly before the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attack on the city’s World Trade Center. The former WTC site and parts of lower Manhattan were still in the rebuilding process following the attack.

Because my knowledge of the picture has been so interwoven with the description, I wouldn’t know how to separate the two.  That being said — and I’ve seen the same interpretation made by a few other visually and politically oriented people I know — whenever I look at this photo, those construction markings remind me of Arabic.

Now, I don’t know if I saw it that way on first look, or it was prompted by the description.  Either way, I now tend to take those street markings; combine them with the guy in the foreground in the turban (although likely Sikh, not Muslim);  add in the Semitic-looking guy pulling the bag while crossing the street; combine that with the known proximity to the WTC site and the anniversary, and I get a powerful sense of those attacks having left a psychic fingerprint on the city, creating an emotional floor under the otherwise everyday comings and goings.

So, what was really illuminating was the opportunity to share this association with David Butow.  After giving him the quick sketch, however, despite the smile and his obvious interest, he related that nobody had ever offered this take about Arabic writing before.

Your Turn: Rites Of Passage (Nina Berman’s Marine Wedding (BAGnewsNotes)

2007 World Press Photo of the Year – Spencer Platt/Southern Lebanon (World Press)

Photojournalists honored at Annenberg reception (Daily Trojan)

World Press Photo exhibit opens at USC Annenberg

DavidButow.com

(image: © David Butow/Redux.  New York, August 1, 2006)

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