I had a soul-searching conversation with Alan Chin yesterday, the morning after he took these photos at the Newtown, Connecticut memorial service. With his photos from the aftermath of the Virginia Tech rampage also in mind, Alan was searching to understand why these latest images, to the extent they reflected still another mass shooting, were important and relevant for him to photograph.
We talked specifically about the photo of the Monsignor on the church steps after the memorial service. Alan referred to it as an “expected picture,” akin to a moment from a Senate hearing or a political campaign with the immense press crush, the boom mics, the reporters with the hand held recorders pushed up to the VIP. “I almost didn’t want to take this picture because its a typical photo, a cliché,” Alan said.
“Of course,” Alan added, “clichés don’t start out as clichés. They start out as something important but only becomes clichés when they happen a thousand times. Certainly, the Monsignor has something vital to say and those words need to be broadcast. He’s doing exactly what he should be doing, the priest playing a central role in bringing the community together as part of the grieving process.”
But perhaps that wariness, that redundancy Alan is experiencing so prominently is worth taking note of. The Monsignor photo is a cliché. And as much as I hate to say it, so too, by now, are the also tragic photos of these grief-stricken townspeople. But maybe that’s the point this time. Perhaps what’s unusual about Newtown is the widespread recognition of its utter familiarity. It seems that that public, the media, social media and the President, as well, have recognized these killings as not unique, as a horror — but more than that, a horror that keeps repeating itself. Is it really possible what makes the Newtown massacre new and acid-sharp, and what thus makes these photos unique, is the recognition of the cliché, the redundancy? To that extent, these photos and Newtown might actually be different.
(photos: Newtown, CT. December 14, 2012)