January 2, 2009

War Should Be So Beautiful

One thing I’m seeing in the NYT visual Gaza coverage, especially in the print edition, is an attempt to apply “fair balance.” These two images, for example, mirrored each other in yesterday’s print edition, both spanning five columns on facing pages (A10 and 11).

The photos themselves couldn’t be more empathetically, emotionally and ideologically stirring. The image of the fighter planting a Hamas flag in the ruins of a destroyed mosque south of Gaza City creates an obvious and powerful association to one of the most famous American visual icons of war and patriotism. A reader, Sergei, wrote to offer the title: “Raising the flag at Abu Jima.” In the other image, a religious Jew stands in a classroom in Beersheba where a rocket hole has pierced the ceiling. Almost as sacrosanct as the destruction of a mosque is the shelling of a school room.

Both shots also fuse together powerful, if not necessarily related symbols, the first photo linking the Islamic faith — through the sympathetically (if fish-eye assisted) leaning mosque — to the impressively tattered flag, here a stronger cousin of the tower. In the second shot, the Orthodox Jew — his garments and beard evoking the state religion — stands in a classroom, the school house also connoting an institution of state.

And then, both shots evoke a spiritual aura the way they portray the sky. The first photo has an ominous but also ethereal quality, the light breaking around the flag as if the signal of higher power emerging in dark circumstances. The scene in the second photo is almost, well, biblical in the way this ascetic man looks to the brilliantly shining hole in the roof, as if a cinematic replay of the burning bush.

What troubles me overall, however, is how beautiful these images are. I don’t know why it trips me up now. It just feels — in light of the real terror and trauma — there is way too much poetry here to handle.

(image 1: Tara Todras-whitehill/Associated Press. Beersheba. image 2: Mohammed Saber/European Pressphoto Agency. Tal al Hawa area, south of Gaza City)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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