June 4, 2009

When Disaster Can’t Be Seen

A woman, looking for information on the Airfrance flight 447 that was reported missing on its way between Rio de Janeiro and Paris, reacts while being taken to a private room at Tom Jobim airport  in Rio de Janeiro, Monday, June 01, 2009. The jet carrying 228 people lost contact with air traffic controllers over the Atlantic Ocean, officials said Monday. Brazil began a search mission off its northeastern coast. (AP Photo/ Ricardo Moraes)

by contributor Robert Hariman

Sometime Tuesday I picked up the news that an Air France airliner had disappeared in the mid-Atlantic.

Dropping from 35,0000 feet, hope for a heroic water landing seemed remote. As I checked periodically, the lack of news became increasingly ominous. Along with that, another form of unease began to make itself felt. Where was the plane–or at least the wreckage? Had it completely disappeared without a trace? Would there be nothing to mark the loss? No twisted fuselage, or crumpled wing–of course not, they sink–but not even objects floating on the water? A pillow, a suitcase, something, anything that could provide a sense of personal connection, of continuity between before and after, some cushion against complete annihilation?

If such a photograph can be taken, I’m sure it will be circulated widely. Until then, the press is having to make do with images of officials, machines, maps, and relatives or friends facing the news. This one above is the most vivid so far.

The caption at the New York Times says that “a woman . . . reacted while being taken to a private room at Tom Jobim Airport in Rio de Janeiro.” That doesn’t tell you much, and in fact the photograph doesn’t tell you much. Without the context of the disaster and the information and emotional cuing provided by the caption, the photo could be completely banal. They could be tourists on a bus. My first reaction was that this photo, like all the initial photos, were merely place holders–images temporarily standing in for the images of the crash that were not available.

The disaster could not yet be seen–no one even knew where the plane went down–but it was too disquieting to allow a complete absence of images. That absence would have been an apt representation of the gaping loss created by a catastrophic disappearance, but who wants that?

As I let the photo assert its own quiet presence, however, something happened. It seems to know how difficult it is to comprehend the event of which it is a small part. The darkness dominating the interior space suggests how all are enveloped in ignorance and foreboding. The hazy bright space (water and sky?) outside suggests the vast emptiness into which the plane has vanished. The photo provides a portrait of not knowing, of not being able to see what really matters.

(Cross-posted from No Caption Needed )

(image: Ricardo Moraes/Associated Press)

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Robert Hariman
See other posts by Robert here.

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