It was 2500 years ago that a Chinese spiritual philosopher famously observed that, “one picture is worth a thousand words.” The truth of that insight has been re-proven countless times over the ensuing centuries. Beginning with simple prehistoric cave drawings and basic stick figures, visual art has evolved through changing styles, new tools, and emerging technique. The images created by the painter, the sculptor, the woodworker, the photographer can provide us with factual information, evoke a range of personal emotions, and serve to document the life and times of moments of human experience.
Nowhere is that more true than with the work of the creative photojournalist meeting the right moment in time, particularly in instances of great national or historical significance. In the last hundred years, there was Dorthea Lange’s portrait of the “Migrant Mother” that told the story of the 1930s Great Depression and the Dust Bowl infused in the tired, beaten-down, exhausted face of Florence Owens Thompson surrounded by two of her seven children. During World War II, there were the Marines hoisting the American flag over Iwo Jima; the Soldiers fighting their way onto the beaches of Normandy in history’s greatest coastal landing, surrounded by the deafening sounds of war and smell of death; the emaciated bodies, walking skeletons, of the few survivors of the untold millions killed in the Nazi death ovens. But there were also the images of Rosie the Riveter working in the factories to support the war effort, and citizens holding paper and metal drives, and living within rationing controls, all illustrating the united cooperative spirit of the home front. Finally, Alfred Eisenstaedt’s image of “V-J Day in Times Square” showing the spontaneous kiss between an unknown sailor and a nurse conveying the joy over war’s end.
In subsequent years would come Viet Nam. Photographer Nick Ut’s “Napalm Girl” showed young Phan Thi Kim Phuc running down the war-torn street, screaming in pain and terror, her clothes entirely burned away by the weapons of war. The image of the young college student, her arms extended as she crouched over one of the four bodies killed in 1970 at Kent State University while protesting the war, her tortured face begging the question “Why?” – her pain in that moment echoing the pain of a country being torn apart within. The true horror of that war was brought home into our living rooms.
Today, America – indeed the world – has been thrust into a different kind of threat: a previously unknown, fast moving, highly contagious, deadly respiratory virus. It is an extensive disruption of global society for which the world has shown it was not prepared. Despite our recent progress, the death toll has been horrendous, and many potential new victims are still to come. A variety of forms of suffering inflict millions of our citizens, from “long termers” recovering from the aftereffects of the illness, to those made homeless and/or jobless, to those trying to hold families together against most difficult circumstances.
Twenty years from now, what will be the images that will define this historical moment and tell its stories? Will it be:
-A picture of doctors and nurses draped head-to-toe in protective gear, hands in gloves, face hidden behind masks and plastic shields, protecting themselves from the virus, but also attempting to cover the personal frustration and emotional drain of losing too many fights against this virus?
-Or a picture of citizens gathered at government buildings, some armed with military-grade weapons, protesting against the social, economic and health rules instituted by public health officials to combat the virus and protect the population?
-Or of close-up portraits of faces, masked versus uncovered – one a statement of public health and personal compliance, the other a political statement or a statement of indifference?
-Or of unmasked / un-distanced patrons crowded into bar gatherings, and large beach parties?
-Or of lines of people, “social distancing” 6’ apart, as they wait in long lines to cast their ballot in spite of new health rules and voting requirement obstacles?
-Or of coffins stacked in refrigerator trucks, because there was no more room at funeral homes?
-Or of older persons, alone, often isolated in nursing homes, sitting by a window in order to see and wave to families separated outside?
-Or of a near-empty Times Square in New York City on New Year’s Eve, sans celebrators?
-Or of a barber shop with a defiant “Open” sign out front, a restaurant with a “Closed” sign on the front door, or a small business with a “Mask Required” sign in the window?
-Or of college kids volunteering ad hoc help to farmers seeking to donate their food that would otherwise rot in the unattended fields?
-Or of long car lines at food banks, and at mass vaccination stations, as citizens respond to both needs and opportunities?
-Or of teachers sitting in front of computer screens, teaching their students online through Zoom connections, using technologies and teaching methods created “on the fly”?
-Or, of the simple image of a vaccination needle inserted into an arm?
-Or, that best sight of all, of a Covic-19 survivor being wheeled through hospital halls, heading home, accompanied by congratulatory applause from health care workers.
We have made good progress in this health fight. Yet we could take a backward turn in a seeming split-second if we fail to see this thing through. No one yet knows what havoc this pandemic will ultimately have wreaked, what economic / social / political structures will have been permanently transformed into some unknown New. Will we have been consumed by our arguments, our differences, our personal self-concerns without regard for our impact on others? Or will we have found new strength in our ability to work together and share burdens, unity in our willingness to look out for and protect one another? What images will we put into our history books for future generations – our children and grandchildren – to look at as they ask us, “When called on, what did you do in 2020-2021 to help protect yourself, your community, and the Nation during that virus?” To what picture will we point?
© 2021 Randy Bell https//:ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com