Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
December 30, 2014

More Best Photos: Alec Soth's Red and White School Shooting Drill

Selected as one of The New York Times 100 pictures of the year, this photo by Alec Soth shows how in 2014 protecting students from mass shootings has become the new benchmark for school safety.

Call it 2014’s version of the air raid drill. With nearly one hundred school shootings in the two years since Sandy Hook, expecting the unexpected turns into a regimented rehearsal strategy: When we come under attack, we get down, we don’t move, and we hold tight. And pray. It doesn’t matter if we all look like targets from the shooter’s perspective. He should never come into the girl’s locker room anyway. As a collective performance of helpless resolve, this snapshot of girls hiding in a locker room reads as visual throwback to the bodily comportment—and let’s be honest: to the farcical charade—of duck and cover.

The NYT could have picked countless other photos for its year-in-review, especially if all it needs is documentation of how a modern public safety tradition becomes a matter of routine. But this one cuts through the noise largely because of the way it mobilizes the regimental colors of red and white, elemental symbols that conjure up associations with sacrificial blood and moral purity. Without a human face to be seen, these two colors end up congealing awkwardly around so much hair and so many tangled body parts, just daring the imagination to yield to their visceral pull. The force of this photograph comes from its willingness to let basic formal and symbolic elements drive much of the narrative. So that puts audiences on red alert in another sense, too. Even though we’re in the midst of photo-bombing culture, where the grand prize is to be seen and accounted for, photos like this one expose how mainstream photojournalism at its best is often about hide-and-seek.

— Philip Perdue

(photo: Alec Soth/Magnum Photos 4/30/2014. caption: A lockdown drill to address the threat of school shootings interrupted an eighth-grade gym class.)

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