Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
August 2, 2015

On Light, God, Photography … and That Moment Just Before the Bad Thing Happens

Ultra-Orthodox Jew Yishai Schlissel walks through a Gay Pride parade and is just about to pull a knife from under his coat and start stabbing people in Jerusalem Thursday, July 30, 2015. Schlissel was recently released from prison after serving a term for stabbing several people at a gay pride parade in 2005, a police spokeswoman said.(AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Because it speaks through the medium of light, photography invites us to think allegorically. Light is both particle and wave, physics and metaphysics, so under the right conditions it moves in mysterious ways. Theologians look to paradoxical properties of light to describe the enigma of divine mystery. Renowned philosopher and professor of religion Huston Smith puts it this way: “Light is a universal metaphor for God, and what science has discovered about physical light helps us to understand why light is uniquely suited for that role. Light is different. It is strangely different. And paradoxically different. All three of these assertions hold for God, as does a fourth. Light creates.”

Whether or not you buy into all the God-talk is beside the point, because when you think about it, all four assertions about difference and paradox hold for photography, too. The point isn’t that photography is God, or that God is a photograph—at least not literally. But we are in fact dealing with a mode of communication that freezes time and space, obeys its own laws, is both visual and grammatical, and does more to generate meaning—and generates more meaning—than we can fully understand.

How unsettling, then, that this brief meditation on photography as a play on light is sparked by a gruesome scene of religiously-inspired hatred? Taken just moments before Ultra-Orthodox Yishai Schlissel whips out a knife and stabs six people at Jerusalem’s annual gay pride parade, this photograph is striking in part because it captures the crime scene before the crime even happens. But what really presses this photograph into a strong indictment of religious fanaticism is the way it captures light handing down the prosecution. If rainbows offer the best symbol for brotherly love—that other universal metaphor for God—that is, light in its full spectrum, then part of the implication here is that there is danger and isolation when religious pursuit of purification results in seeing only red. Beyond that, this photograph uses reflective glare from the sun to make a simple yet profound declaration: religious opposition to gay rights is really about conflicting visions for human sexuality, and thanks to pinpoint accuracy and a bright red circle for emphasis, it’s almost as if the sun is making it explicit which one is the source of the problem.

— Philip Perdue

(photo: Sebastian Scheiner/AP Photo. caption: Ultra-Orthodox Jew Yishai Schlissel walks through a Gay Pride parade and is just about to pull a knife from under his coat and start stabbing people in Jerusalem Thursday, July 30, 2015. Schlissel was recently released from prison after serving a term for stabbing several people at a gay pride parade in 2005, a police spokeswoman said).

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