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January 6, 2009

Captioning The New Year


by Robert Hariman

The new year has started very much like the old year: renewed war in the Middle East, exceedingly uncivil civil wars in Africa, spasms of terrorism and counter-terrorism in Asia, drug wars in Latin America, and economic decline everywhere. That’s not the whole story, of course, but it is a continuing story.

Faced with another year of violence, journalists and citizens alike have to make choices about how to depict and understand what is happening, and how to do so without becoming cynical or otherwise numbed to the obligations and possibilities for change. One place to begin is by looking at this photograph.

Recently I got somewhat lyrical about two images of “Hands of Death.” Now we are looking at the foot of a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. Rather than speak about the photograph directly, let me ask you how it might be captioned.

That’s a real question. What are we to make of this awful, pathetic, powerful image? How should we label it to use it well–that is, to provide material for public thought?

I’ll suggest several captions that occurred to me, along with their implications for framing events to come. First, “Picking up the Pieces.” Cute, isn’t it? But that is what has to be done. After the dramatic cataclysm of the blast and perhaps heroic efforts to save the wounded, someone has to pick up the shards of material, bone, and flesh that remain. At the same time and for much longer, someone has to pick up the pieces of shattered families, broken communities, a damaged society.

The violence that has occurred is still occurring, not only in the continuation of political struggles, cycles of violence, martial habits, and the arms trade, but because the harm already done lasts for decades among the living. Whatever will come to pass, surely one of the tasks facing governments and individuals today is to pick up the pieces still strewn about, the sorry fragments of past destructiveness that have to be gathered up and put to rest as part of moving forward.

I also thought of labeling the photograph as “The Human Remnant.” Although we don’t typically look at the soles of our feet, much less think of them as emblems of humanity, that foot now becomes expressive. It looks capable, vulnerable, well cared for, and generally a sign of how humans are a distinctive species. The top of the foot has been seared by the blast, leaving the soft, fleshy underside as the only trace of the human being who existed before ideology, socialization, self-immolation. Perhaps that foot could have walked down another path; indeed, isn’t that true of everyone? Thus, the image reminds us of how war wastes human potential. But let’s not get too sentimental. He killed three other people, and the soldiers, munitions makers, and strategists also are human, as are the torturers and those who authorize torture. It is not enough for humanity to endure.

Other captions include: “Putting Your Best Foot Forward” and “Adding Insult to Injury.” The first ranges from contempt to cynicism, while the second plays off of the cultural significance in the Middle East of showing the soles of one’s feet. I could go on, but you get the point. One question we face in the new year is how to represent, understand, and react to a world riven by violence. This is not an academic question.

Cross-posted from No Caption Needed.

(image: Ahmad Masood/Reuters via The Big Picture)

  • arty

    Voting with Their Feet

  • Dave X

    Thinking of Bush’s shoe thrower, maybe: “This is a goodbye kiss from an Afghanistani person, dog,”

  • Karen

    I imagine someone living in that area develops a high tolerance for the bizarre or goes crazy. Maybe the same thing happens to people who try to resolve the issue…

  • FutHarkOnnen

    “Love was one of the things that separated humans…”
    ~The Great Dunes Revolt~

  • NoContest

    Another shattered dream. Have there even been this many broken dreams in history? I suppose so,… but mankind is doomed to repeat the past. Malthius predicted this 100 years ago. I’d call the picture “Groundhog Day” only most would not make the connection to the Bill Murray movie where he becomes stuck in time repeating the same action in an endless loop.
    So I say: “This was Not the Life I Planned to Have.” … and there is nothing that will ever make it any different… so, … rage, remorse, regret, and The End.
    I wonder what actually goes through a suicide bombers mind just before he pushes the button? My quote above is what I believe they might think just before it all ends. Ugh. I am sitting here shaking my head. Thanks Robert, for the rip.

  • cenoxo

    Don’t Tread on Me
    If someone has the will to strap explosives on their body and blow themselves and their perceived enemies to bits, perhaps Americans should think twice about involving themselves more deeply in such a deadly mess.
    The British tried it, the Russians tried it, and both withdrew after leaving thousands of their sons — not to mention millions of Afghanis — in Afghanistan’s rocky ground. America fanned the flames once before, too, and look what blew back in our faces. And now we want to add even more fuel to the fire?
    Flags are best waved in one’s own country: leave others alone to decide how to to wave theirs.

  • Steve

    Bugger this, I’m sticking to Lolcats

  • Gasho

    A footprint is a very human and personal mark. A human foot without a body is extremely disturbing.
    I think this image and others like it would make pretty good anti-propaganda propaganda to dissuade potential suicide bombers before they’ve been fully indoctrinated.
    How hard could it be to convince someone that causing severe harm to others, while suffering and perishing in the process is a BAD idea? Seems like that would be much easier than convincing them that it’s a GOOD idea!

  • jtfromBC

    Putting his foot down.
    >(how to)..react to a world driven by violence.
    Lets consider not putting our military feet on more foreign lands and leave countries where we have overstayed our welcome.
    If we are really courageous lets
    “.. rein in what Eisenhower originally called the “military-industrial-congressional complex,” (otherwise) we will never have a peace-based economy.”

  • Stella

    One final step for a man, one more violent leap for mankind.

  • zzyzx

    Gasho: What seems to be a good idea, exposing potential suicide bombers to potential risks, I believe is already preempted by Arab television which shows non-stop photos of the carnage wrought by IDF bombs, etc., upon civilian populations, along with the day-to-day suffering caused by the inability of that population to get supplies they need just to survive.
    Photos like this one could perhaps sway the American public by confronting them with the real costs of the wars their government supports. Israel does not manufacture those bombs, rockets, et al. Somehow our media feel that all news and news photography must be sanitized so as not to cause indigestion by the public. Americans don’t care what they put in their stomachs or their lungs, but heavens forbid our eyes should face the true horrors of wars.
    As a caption, although trite, “The Real Cost of Terror”
    Or: “CSI: Afghanistan”
    Or: “Missing: Afghani male, 5′8″, black hair, brown eyes, age 17-20, last seen wearing…..”
    Or: “The World at His Feet”
    Or: “Don’t be attracted to easy paths because the paths that make your feet bleed are the only
    way to get ahead in life.” — Saddam Hussein
    Or: “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.” — Unknown

  • zzyzx

    BTW, Michael, I miss your sidebar of “Recent Comments”

  • Michael (The BAG)

    Thanks for the feedback. I was trying to streamline things awhile back. I’ll take it under advisement.

  • Amy

    That is a soft foot; a young foot. Before reading about the photo, my gut told me it was a child’s foot. In that footprint, there is palpable ignorance, naivete, incompleteness and even, ironically, innocence.

  • Site Launch System

    That picture is very graphic… but it got your point across

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