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December 16, 2012

Alan Chin from the Memorial Service in Newtown, CT: Different This Time?

I had a soul-searching conversation with Alan Chin yesterday, the morning after he took these photos at the Newtown, Connecticut memorial service. With his photos from the aftermath of the Virginia Tech rampage also in mind, Alan was searching to understand why these latest images, to the extent they reflected still another mass shooting, were important and relevant for him to photograph.

We talked specifically about the photo of the Monsignor on the church steps after the memorial service. Alan referred to it as an “expected picture,” akin to a moment from a Senate hearing or a political campaign with the immense press crush, the boom mics, the reporters with the hand held recorders pushed up to the VIP. “I almost didn’t want to take this picture because its a typical photo, a cliché,” Alan said.

“Of course,” Alan added, “clichés don’t start out as clichés. They start out as something important but only becomes clichés when they happen a thousand times. Certainly, the Monsignor has something vital to say and those words need to be broadcast. He’s doing exactly what he should be doing, the priest playing a central role in bringing the community together as part of the grieving process.”

But perhaps that wariness, that redundancy Alan is experiencing so prominently is worth taking note of. The Monsignor photo is a cliché.  And as much as I hate to say it, so too, by now, are the also tragic photos of these grief-stricken townspeople. But maybe that’s the point this time. Perhaps what’s unusual about Newtown is the widespread recognition of its utter familiarity. It seems that that public, the media, social media and the President, as well, have recognized these killings as not unique, as a horror — but more than that, a horror that keeps repeating itself. Is it really possible what makes the Newtown massacre new and acid-sharp, and what thus makes these photos unique, is the recognition of the cliché, the redundancy? To that extent, these photos and Newtown might actually be different.


(photos: Newtown, CT. December 14, 2012)

About the Photographer

Alan Chin

Alan Chin was born and raised in New York City’s Chinatown. Alan Chin was born and raised in New York City’s Chinatown. Since 1996, he has worked in China, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, and throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. In the US, Alan has explored the South, following the historic trail of the civil rights movement and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, covered multiple presidential campaigns, and the Occupy Wall Street movement. He is a contributing photographer to Newsweek/Daily Beast and The New York Times, a member of Facing Change: Documenting America (FCDA), and an editor at You can see all Alan's posts for BagNews here.

  • Stan B.

    I think what’s also different here is that these were not inner city children, or those of of “trailer trash,” or of some quaint American subset like the Amish- they were not even the children of Average Joe Americans. These were the offspring of those who drive Audis and Beamers; these were children with futures, like their parents. Now everyone is finally realizing that no one is immune from these tragedies.

    • Mereel1138

      That only means that it’s part of the litany of mass shootings we’ve seen in the 14 years since Columbine and not the constant drone of poor-on-poor violence.

      Or is this one somehow different from Aurora, CO or Oikos U. in Oakland, CA or Chardon HS in Chardon, OH or Tucson, AZ, or……any number of other attacks that claimed “children with futures”.

      The story not reported on is on the deep-seated racism we’ve become comfortable with that makes it acceptable to talk about how white middle-class victims matter and (if you’re feeling drunk on idealism) can change things and how black and poor victims are just a fact of life.

      Now, if this had, heaven forbid, happened at Sidwell Friends in DC, that would be a different story and might have actually provoked a change for the better. Perversely enough, it’s much the same as with the draft; until those in power feel it could be their own children in harm’s way they won’t act.

  • John Edwin Mason

    Yes, these photos and the situation that they show us have probably become cliches. But, despite being overly familiar, they still have the power to move us profoundly. Many people wept when they saw videos and photos from Newtown. (My eyes misted when I looked at Chin’s just now.) Many felt outrage, as well. Surprisingly many people are demanding stricter gun laws after having looked. And some are asking deeper questions about the nature of the country in which we live.

    I don’t think it’s familiarity or redundancy that gives these photos their power personally and politically. These and photos from Virginia Tech and Columbine and the eastern Congo allow us to make an emotional connection with those who are suffering. Sometimes, perhaps, it’s empty emotion. But not always. And, I hope, not now.

  • Cactus

    Not being one to dwell on mass tragedies such as this, I will say that what
    I noticed in Alan’s photos is that the parents are not just holding the hand of
    their children, as usual in crowds, they are enfolding the entire child, as if
    to protect them from everything while realizing, I’m sure, that they cannot
    do exactly that. Alan’s photos bring out the pathos in that community so well.
    If it’s a cliche, it’s because we have had too many of these incidents lately.

    The wall-to-wall coverage by almost all TV (even c-Span) tends, after
    while, to become sentimental and repetitive. I wonder if all that is dulling
    the impact on the public and making the logical reaction impossible. I’ve heard
    at least two commentors compare this to the ’shoe bomber’ in the reaction of the
    government. After the SB was caught, within days we all had to take off our
    shoes before getting on an airplane. After every mass shooting, including this
    one, all the pols and media types are saying now is not the time to talk about
    such things. My question is what makes a pair of tennis shoes more important
    than a 5-year-old child?

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