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December 26, 2008

The Hands Do Speak. (The Question Is, Who Is Listening?)


by Robert Hariman

Photojournalism is vexed by the problem of how to portray degradation and death without harming the dignity of those being photographed. The medium’s capacity for evoking emotional response and moral judgment cannot be separated from its ability to add insult to injury. With that problem in mind, one can appreciate why this photograph is not only striking but also an ethical achievement.

A Congolese government soldier lies dead in the road not long after having been shot in the head. He is one of many who have died or will die in the continuing violence in central Africa. It is easy to immediately think of him as a statistic. Another distant victim in yet another civil war, one about which the viewer probably has no interest, no knowledge, no connection. A war that becomes merely another example of the seemingly endless violence spreading through the jungles and across the deserts and up into the mountains around the globe as poor people are recruited to maim and kill one another for the benefit of unseen warlords.

Thus, it can be easy to dismiss him, except for that hand.

There is something achingly beautiful about it. It seems so alive, or if we know otherwise, so etched with life. It is a particular hand, not the abstract symbol of labor, but the hand of an individual whose lifetime of experiences, however common, were encountered with all the particularity evident in each crease of skin, the line of each cuticle, the smudge of dirt. More than that, the image evokes all the skill of a hand, its capability for craft and communication. Caught in a last gesture, this hand seems to still want to communicate, to reach out or up, to plead, perhaps, or to touch and say goodbye.

We know that he is dead, however, and so the raindrops on the fingers become poignant. They course down his limb, set in rigor mortis, as they do on any other inanimate thing, and yet they still seem to signify life. As if he were still capable of bleeding, or of washing, as if he could perhaps be revived with cool water. But the point is not to keep hope alive. Rather, the hand offers mute testimony to the value of the life that has been lost. It presents him as an individual person but not merely because he had a name or a personality. And it records his death with dignity, suggesting how much has been lost without showing the devastation of the head wound.

Photojournalism can not be satisfied with avoiding habits of dehumanization, however, as it also has to confront and expose those practices in their worst forms, which are not done by shooting with a camera. This second photograph was in a number of slide shows recently, perhaps because it captures so well the gross destructiveness of war.


These are the hands of men executed near San Ignacio, Mexico. They are among the latest casualties in the border wars between Mexican drug cartels. (For a current report on the violence, see “Day of the Dead” in The Observer/The Guardian.) The photo documents the practice of tying up the victims, which in turn implies that this was a planned execution characteristic of high level gang warfare. It also captures the fact of murder without revealing the identities of the victims or the full violence done to their bodies.

These hands in this image accomplish something different from the work done in the first photograph. Where before dignity was salvaged from chronic violence, now the shameful nature of mass killing is exposed. These men were left this way to demean them, while the photograph exposes where the shame really lies–with those who kill, and with those could try to stop the killing but look the other way.

Equally important, now the implicit metonymy of hands signifying labor is rightfully in play. These men could have been productive laborers (and managers) had the work been available. Whatever bad choices they might have made, the narco-economy and its attendant carnage involves a terrible waste of human potential. The drug trade, like the arms trade, is a global business, and globalization can spread destructiveness just as easily as it can generate wealth. If hands could speak, these would beg to be given a second chance, one with real work that could lead to a better life.

The hands do speak. The question is, who is listening?

cross-posted from No Caption Needed .

Photographs by Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters (via The Big Picture) and the Associated Press.

  • Sergei Andropov

    “Equally important, now the implicit metonymy of hands signifying labor is rightfully in play. These men could have been productive laborers (and managers) had the work been available.”
    Curious observation, and one that speaks as much to our view of Africans as our view of Mexicans. It seems to be accepted as given that an African should be a soldier, should fight and should die, tragic though it may be.
    As much as that first photograph is a triumph of photojournalism, it is also reflective of photojournalism’s limits. It shows, with brutal clarity, that which is, but it contains no hints as to why it is. This soldier did not die in the mere ambient chaos that characterized Africa for so long. When the Rwandan Genocide occurred back in the 1990’s, it set off massive, cataclysmic shock waves that destabilized an already unstable region. The vast numbers of refugees it generated, as well as the burning hatreds, created a situation that is in some ways reminiscent of the Arab-Israeli conflict — an untenable situation that has resulted in a series of wars being fought. The difference between the two, though, is one of scale. The Second Intifada, which has been reported on down to the minutest detail, has claimed about six thousand lives. The Second Congo War, which no one has ever heard of despite the fact that it ended just five years ago, claimed five million, making it the single deadliest conflict since World War II. The root causes of the situation in southern Africa are no more intractable than those of the situation in the Cisjordan — indeed, they are substantially less intractable. Nevertheless, we hope to find a solution for one, but consider the other unworthy of wasting our hope on.
    We weep, but do not understand.

  • mad_nVT

    Wonderful, terrible post.
    I believe that the two photos, the commentary by Robert Hariman and the comment posted above by Sergei Andropov should all be included in the BAGnewsNotes “Picks of the Year.”

  • Karen

    Wow. What an addition to this site. Glad to see your post here.
    I appreciate the ethical concerns of not identifying the once living in the picture of the corpse, but it occurs to me that one who knew any one of these men well would know the corpse. The shape of the jaw while sleeping or the hand reaching out, the deformed finger or the wedding ring. The hand in the top photo seems so dead and frozen; those in the bottom photo still warm and alive and familiar. The latter really makes me think about how a person takes a life, looks at living eyes and decides to kill.

  • plebeianswillrevolt

    Awesome contribution Robert Hariman…. I’m still shaking with horror and fear and anger and rage. Death be not proud.

  • vcInCA

    Hands… they’re used often, to index a link to life–how many movies use an emerging hand to show that someone hasn’t died? (person vanishes, hand is then shown reaching out, or still moving, meaning that the person is still alive) hands in some way stand for humanity, for life, and we as a race often distinguish ourselves from other animals because of what we can do with our hands–brains are great, language is great, but neither has the physical ability to move something, create or fashion something from its original form into a tool. its easier to see a picture of a dead body and imagine the life that they might have lived, their future, through their hands, than through any other part of the body. in that sense, they are a great way to reconcile the dehumanizing effect of a photo of a dead body, where we recognize the body as empty, in some sense.

  • lytom

    After the mass bombing by Israel of the Gaza, more hands, more destruction, and no response.
    Bush and Obama maintain the policy of support for any action of Israel. Shame.

  • richard dent

    Millions are being killed in Africa. That’s one of the messages of these photos. However bad you might think it is in Israel/Palestine, the death toll is in the hundreds. Yes, each death a terrible thing, no life more important than another.
    But if you want to bring up Israel, note there has been a mass bombing of Israel by Hamas-controlled Gaza, placing rocket launchers in civilian areas. Is there any nation that wouldn’t respond for itself? Israel at least tried to hit military targets, while Hamas aims at civilian areas in Israel.

  • jtfromBC

    lytom your point is well taken ~ there’s a hell of a lot of hands, the tally so far
    The Israeli bombardment of Gaza Saturday left at least 227 dead and 800 wounded, making it the biggest such atrocity in 60 years of Israel-Palestine conflict.
    I believe one Israeli has been killed and some others slightly injured.

  • vcInCA

    on the topic of hands, and more largely how well death is made salient to individual news readers, and which ones are ‘valued’ through publicity (or at least how well national violence and death tolls are reflected in google searches by random joes), this is an interesting analysis:

  • RTan

    Here is a poem by Harold Pinter, the Nobel Laureate who died on December 24 – which is what I thought of when I saw the photos above. You can see the full lecture here:
    Where was the dead body found?
    Who found the dead body?
    Was the dead body dead when found?
    How was the dead body found?
    Who was the dead body?
    Who was the father or daughter or brother
    Or uncle or sister or mother or son
    Of the dead and abandoned body?
    Was the body dead when abandoned?
    Was the body abandoned?
    By whom had it been abandoned?
    Was the dead body naked or dressed for a journey?
    What made you declare the dead body dead?
    Did you declare the dead body dead?
    How well did you know the dead body?
    How did you know the dead body was dead?
    Did you wash the dead body
    Did you close both its eyes
    Did you bury the body
    Did you leave it abandoned
    Did you kiss the dead body

  • lytom

    Yes, richard dent @ Dec 27, 2008 @ 5:41 pm I do want to bring up Israel!
    Is there a nation, who usurps other people’s territory and now holds inhabitants under its iron clasp?
    Is there a nation, who wants to deny other people’s right to vote?
    Is there a nation, who denies the basic human rights to the native people, the right to basic needs, schools, medicine, free trade and possibility of employment, clean water, electricity, …I could go on…
    Is there a nation who builds walls on other’s people’s land, maintains hundredth of check points where distances between neighboring areas take hours to reach?
    Is there a nation who outrageously has stockpiles of nuclear arms without any international control?
    You tell me and then speak of that nation hitting military targets on a densely civilian populated land…”trying to hit only military targets!”
    And then tell me, how long is long enough? 50 years? 100 years?
    Have you ever looked at the other side with compassion?
    Occupation of land and war on people is unacceptable!

  • sohbet

    resulted in a series of wars being fought

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