January 5, 2011

I Love This Photo of Fabienne Jean. And That's What Worries Me. (Updated Again.)

Fabienne Jean, the dancer who lost a leg in the earthquake, smiled so radiantly and expressed such courage that everybody who met or read about her wanted to help. Doctors, prosthetists, choreographers, dancers with disabilities, charitable groups — they all aspired to adopt Ms. Jean. from: A Year Later, Haiti Struggles Back – NYTimes.com

Photo Caption: Fabienne Jean, a dancer who lost a leg in the 2010 quake in Haiti, now has a prosthetic limb. Dance makes up part of her exercise routine.

I love Damon Winter’s photo of Fabienne Jean.

It’s gorgeous. It’s inspiring. It feels good. And that’s what worries me.  Because, encountering this picture on the NYT front page, as well as in many Facebook links and likes, I am tempted to latch onto it as representative of the Haitians — as the latest update, if you will — and imagine that all those people who were physically or emotionally crushed are making seats out of the rubble, making light of what happened and even down there dancing.

Update 1: Reading the comment from my friend, Benjamin, from Duckrabbitblog made me realize I did a very un-Bag-like thing, which is to comment on the photo without describing what motivated my reaction.

Benjamin wrote:

But Michael, I think it is you who are pulling out leg here. This photo offers a rare moment of balance to the deluge of misery we are offered. It gives me a reason to look again, to engage again.

If this photo elicits that reaction, I’m happy to hear it. Here’s why I doubt it can really engage someone to look at the people of Haiti, though.

Trained as we Western visual consumers are to look at pictures in very specific ways, this photo does not lead me to think about it as a crisis image or a cultural image so much as a fashion image because it’s so steeped in that vernacular.

The white backdrop against the town wall is an element we’re well used to seeing to connoting a fashion shoot.  Add to that the long, lanky, thin and attractive woman, her left foot angled in an elegant way and the photo “model” more than it does “civilian.”  The way she is holding the leg and laughing (as if engaged with the photographer having nailed the pose) also lends itself more to the shooting of an advertisement.  As well, the way the rocks are stacked also evokes a stylist’s imagination pursuing a utilitarian form of chic. Finally, let’s not forget the psychological impact of a caption. Because the verbiage doesn’t tell us that Fabienne Jean is no average Haitian, but is a prima ballerina and a celebrity, the fact this charismatic woman has become a magnet for support lends a heavy sprinkling of fairy dust — one drawing me less to consider the more normative Haitian survivor than to be seduced and a bit intoxicated by this made-for-Hollywood happy ending.

Update 2:

I have a few further thoughts and a little more background on the original image.

Even though the NYT article completely downplays it, Ms. Jean is not a Haitian everywoman, thus someone randomly singled out by The Times as a  lucky recipient of international care and aid. Rather, she is a beautiful and known Haitian, the kind who has drawn this kind of help and media attention almost at the expense of the rest of the population.  Also, the fact Ms. Jean was singled out for last week’s NYT article and photo shoot was not random at all.  In fact, she was the subject of a previous NYT article back in April led by a very sexy photo, also by Damon Winter, taken while she’s either unconscious or in pain.  The second line of that article emphasizes and exploits the sexual objectification of Ms. Jean, starting off with the words:

“Once at the radiography clinic, Ms. Jean, 31, wearing a form-fitting black minidress with a chunky lapis-blue necklace draped herself on the examining table like a fashion model.”

The article also highlights the fact that, far from a fortunate Haitian lucky to have received a limb, the beautiful Ms. Jean actually became the subject of what the Times called a “tug of war” between different health care providers anxious to help her.  Writes the Times:

“For Ms. Jean, a dancer with Haiti’s National Theater, tragedy has turned into opportunity in a way that dizzies her.”

Given Fabienne’s beauty, her objectification by the media and the aid community, and this manufactured celebrity, it’s hard for me to see this most recent photo  as reflective of very much that is beneficial to the Haitian people.

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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