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April 14, 2005

After the Tsunami


When I was first learning the shrink trade, I had a mentor who really impressed upon me the difference between describing something and explaining it. 

Maybe it goes against the who, what, where of journalistic convention, but this NYT article and photo (After the Tsunami: At Home, in Company of Memories – link) follows up the devastating South Asian tsunami in a way that conveys a great deal with just a few strokes of detail.  In briefly introducing us to a father and son who have lost their relatives, a girl who plays with her shadow, and a young woman who has gone mad, the story manages to convey a keen sense of the surreal aftermath of December’s catastrophe.

The girl in the photo is a 5-year-old named Tasya.  The caption says she is playing with her shadow in the ruins of her home in Banda Aceh.  Her father says that this is now her favorite place to play. The graffiti, aimed at looters, says, “Don’t seek wealth out of suffering.”

The photo is so evocative, I would be interested in your interpretations.  For example, what do you make of the flag silhouette that seems to be extending from the girl’s head?  (To see the larger, color image accompanying the on-line article, click the story link above.)

For me, the most striking element is that she appears to be missing her legs.  Maybe that’s a metaphor for what grief does — it takes out your legs, and unhinges you from the ground.  Another strange aspect is that there’s water on the ground.  Most likely, it’s from a recent rain.  Still, it’s hard not to consider it as the flood water Tasya might be looking to stay above.  I was also interested in the sticks poking up from where her feet might otherwise go.  It almost seems like Tasya could be a doll springing forward and back on this base.  Perhaps the image comes from reports of her hovering around her house, and her constant motion.  On the other hand, with the news filled with stories about injured soldiers (such as this profile of two women vets in Monday’s NYT), the “stump” could also be read as a prosthetic device.  (It’s one thing to appreciate physical disability, but it’s an altogether different issue granting emotional handicap.)   

Reading this account and studying this picture, I all-of-a-sudden realize there have been quite a few articles on Aceh lately.  Apparently, the island has yet to receive much aid relief.  (Of course it’s another association, but could the flag be a reminder that Tasya plays in the shadow of a difficult political situation?)

(image: Seth Mydans/International Herald Tribune10.10.05 in The New York Times, p. A3.)

  • jenny

    regarding the NYT article on the two female amputees, i find it very interesting that they chose two very different photographs of the women to display on the story pages. (i’m not counting the slideshow, which is more balanced.)

  • JMR

    I have to wonder how much of the money donated for tsumani relief has actually gotten to the victims in southeast asia.

  • jillian

    The photo almost seems “spiritual” in a sense as she is “flying” almost like an angel with the shadow of the flag seeming to be like a wing?
    And the foreign language scrawl on the wall perhaps seen like a religious Latin?
    Perhaps I am seeing a religious tone to it because all of a sudden corporate media is all over anything “religious” and I am constantly inundated with religious (almost all Christian) messages. (The media has some ’splaining to do if they don’t offer the same 24/7 death watch coverage to the Dalai Lama)
    It is a such a wonderfully haunting photo but creepy with the lack of legs…even in the shadow.

  • amanuensis

    I immediatly saw the photo much like jillian did above. The girl looks like an angel — a spirit floating above the water, faceless to us living people. There is very little emphasizing any downward movement; the dress is billowing much more backward than upward. The photo appears very still and peaceful for picturing something that is usually very dynamic.
    The sticks you mention help convey the “stillness” to me rather than anything to do with legs. They aren’t moving, yet the flag that we can’t see is billowing in the same directions as the dress. This makes the girl/shadow/flag seem unnaturally moving within a perfectly still scene.

  • leigh

    I have looked at this picture several times. At first glance, to me, it seemed more 3 dimentional. The wall behind her looked like a landscape, and the writing was like sky writing. Finally, after looking at it so many times, I realize what triggered a strong emotional response. I realized that what at first appeared to be a landscape is actually the water line from the Tsunami, and the shadow of the girl is not playing – but drowning.

  • Tilli (Mojave Desert)

    I’d really urge people to click the link and look at this photo in color.
    To sad to add any other comment.

  • aethorian

    [Direct link to large NYT color photo.]
    On the contrary, this image is very beautiful and uplifting. For Tasya, playing after utter catastrophe with all she has left, her life (and imagination) goes on. Her wealth lies not in her possessions, but in her spirit that rises above the tsunami’s white wave, and above the brown earth it left behind.
    If there’s enough wind to fly, Tasya and her shadow need wings, not legs.

  • Stephen

    No doubt this photo will receive many awards. The reason? As more and more details are known about the facts surrounding the location, person and action in the photo, the more one is drawn into the background and the history behind the photo.

  • Erin

    So glad I ran across this discussion. I was catching up on my reading yesterday when I ran across this photo and was awestruck. I couldn’t get it out of my head all night. I don’t find it sad it all. I think it’s ironic and uplifting – the power of perserverance and innocence amid utter chaos. I agree; it’s definitely an award-winner. I printed it for my wall, but I’d love to get my hands on a bigger copy of the original. Anyone have any ideas about how to do this? Contact the NYT directly? Dunno. Let me know. Thanks.

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