Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
June 8, 2017

On that Viral Tornado Photo–a Sign of the Times

Photo: Cecilia Wessels/Canadian Press via Facebook . Washington Post caption: Theunis Wessels mowed his lawn at his home in the Canadian town of Three Hills, Alberta, on Friday as a tornado touched down nearby. The photo caused a bit of a storm on social media.

I imagine most of you saw this photograph that went viral last week. Taken by his wife in their backyard, it shows Mr. Theunis Wessels of Three Hills, Alberta, Canada, mowing his lawn while a tornado looms. Mrs. Wessels posted it to Facebook, titling it simply:

“My beast mowing the lawn with a breeze in his hair.”

This is viral material on the situation alone. Still, it’s impossible to look at this picture without making some assumption about Wessel’s state of mind. Is the photo astonishing because Theunis knows what is coming his way? Or is it astonishing because he’s oblivious? (For the record, Mr. Wessels told the Canadian media: “It looks much closer if you look in the photo, but it was really far away.” WAPO has the backstory, complete with some meteorological fun.)

Regardless of Mr. Wessels’s comment, public imagination takes hold of a photo for its own reasons, the force of interest also reflecting something of the times. A case in point:

The latest cartoon from Matt Wuerker. #politics #trump #donaldtrump #republicans #weather #washington

A post shared by POLITICO (@politico) on

In this case, I really do think the power of the photo comes from the different ways to think about Mr. Wessels’s state of mind.

For example, are we looking at Mr. Wessels, the skeptic, predisposed to deny facts because he doesn’t trust anyone to tell him what he should think or do? Or, are we looking at someone who has sized up the situation and is hedging his bets (as well as “betting his hedges”) in the face of all hell breaking loose. Perhaps we could liken this approach to the “keep calm and carry on” stance we’ve seen in London most recently.

Photos, like cartoons and comedy, can be cathartic when the world around us feels dangerous and also way spun up. Putting the world in a frame helps to contain it, to turn it into a story, and to invite irony. And that’s a good thing when the situation is so nuts that people don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

— Michael Shaw

(Photo: Cecilia Wessels/Canadian Press via FacebookWashington Post caption: Theunis Wessels mowed his lawn at his home in the Canadian town of Three Hills, Alberta, on Friday as a tornado touched down nearby. The photo caused a bit of a storm on social media. Cartoon: Matt Wuerker.)

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