When words fail, there are photos. Hence the famous adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Sometimes, if the emotional content is so sensitive or complex, a powerful image can convey the essence of the matter more than any eloquent prose or poetry.
And sometimes, when prose or poetry is articulated with such perfect visceral eloquence, it paints a powerful picture in the mind’s eye. The writing is so evocative that it is as though visual frame after visual frame is passing before your very eyes.
That is how I feel about Eicha, the Scroll of Lamentations, chanted in its elegiac melody, as well as the Kinot, the dirges and eulogies recited following Eicha on Tisha b’Av.
The other night I thought to myself, what are the top ten most famous photos I could think of? These are the ones that came mind:
The ever so innocent but also terror-stricken Warsaw Ghetto boy in his little black coat as his hands are raised in surrender while a cluster of grown-ups envelops him; the post WW II photo of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square and the joy of war’s end that it exudes; the American flag raised atop a mountain by US Marines during a defining WW II battle on the island of Iwo Jima; the three Israeli paratroopers standing in front of the Wailing Wall, their faces raised toward it with what seemed like millennia of Jewish history, tears, and longing, all lodged in their youthful eyes; the malnourished, collapsed, little African boy, in child’s pose, on the ground, a bird staring in the background (known as Starving Child and Vulture or Struggling Girl or Vulture and the Little Girl, only years later to be identified as a boy); the man jumping from the Twin Towers on 9/11, who could have been mistaken for a flying bird; the entire archive of Roman Vishniac’s haunting pre-Holocaust images; the firefighter at the Oklahoma bombing scene holding a bloodied limp baby in his arms; the tiny Syrian boy dead on the shores of a beach; and just last year, in black and white, the beautiful little Yemeni girl starving to death.
Afterward, when I looked up what the most famous or influential photos of all time were, I was reminded of a few others I had known of but which had not immediately come to mind: one from the D-Day invasion in Normandy and one from Vietnam.
I hadn’t known of the rest.
But each in their own way, like those on the list above, were iconic photos — mostly, difficult photos, photos that made you confront pain and violence like nothing else can.
I remember the controversy of the photo of the African child and the bird. As a university student in New York when it was first published in The New York Times, I was immediately aware of the photo, even before it was reprinted and became a subject of photo-journalism ethics. There was something so desperately desolate about that photo; of a child so alone in a vast open field, only in the presence a watchful bird seeming to wait for the child do die in order to be eaten; something about the stark system of nature, and what had become of this human child, the utter inhumanity and abandonment of it all, a child lying helpless, so alone, his humanity reduced to potential bird prey. The photo, so visceral, told a horrible story, a colossal failure of humanity that no words could ever describe.
In a single photo, a conversation — an accusation about African hunger and the searing plight of African children — was spoken.
As a result of this Pulitzer winning photo, and the tragic suicide of the photographer, and the aftermath — the controversy about the role of a photojournalist, whether to intervene in tragedy or rather remain behind the lens as an observer and storyteller — much attention has been given to iconic photos of this nature.
Indeed, they are soul-searing.
The act of a photographer narrowly focusing in on the suffering of the subject actually widens the world’s understanding and our G-d-given cameras, our eyes.
While those of us going about our lives in Western countries, blessed enough not to have to cope with these struggles, these photographs shake our consciousness from our illusory perception of the world’s prosperity and security. The photographer, as proxy for those voiceless who are devastated by war and suffering and atrocities, comes and stops us in our tracks, forcing us to confront the suffering of those who are far away.
Yes, those photos are brutal. While I cannot remember a time in my life when the Jewish photos were not part of all this, as they form part of the layers of my soul, I can still remember the first time seeing some of those wrenching photos above, and the tears that welled up in my eyes: the African boy, the buzzard, Oklahoma, 9/11, the Syrian toddler, the Yemeni girl.
They jolted me into personally wanting to go to those tents or clinics in Africa, in Syria and in Yemen.
It’s not easy to look at or listen to these pictures, to visually confront their pain. I never went, but those images have remained with me.
This week, at Shabbat’s close, when you read the very evocative language that Jeremiah verbally paints in Eicha; of the abandonment and pain of Jerusalem and the fall of the Jewish people into the clutches of exile, of the desperate starvation of the children and the wrenching choices of their mothers; when you read of “Ani Hagever, I am the Man,” the third and central chapter of the Book of Lamentations — an emotional and graphic microcosmic experience of one man, reflecting the collective, the Jewish People, you can imagine in your mind’s eye, frame by frame, some of those written images as frozen photographs in time.
Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News