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August 17, 2013

The Machine and the Martyrs: The Quintessential Photo from the Maniacal Crackdown in Cairo Last Week

It’s hard to leave the grid anymore without something somewhere taking a profound turn and leaving you unaware. The photos of the crackdown from Nasr City in Cairo (1, 2, 3) were certainly that much more jarring as I viewed them on my phone picking up the first signal while descending from Yosemite’s higher heights.

Though the week was filled with horrific and telling imagery, no photo struck me more than this. (Click for full size.) An added human rights punch, of course, comes from the way it recapitulates that person standing before the tanks in Tiananmen. But this photo has much more to say on its own. If we have seen countless news photos of tanks in the streets of Cairo since the onset of the Arab Spring, the sight of bulldozers have been far less common, which makes this photo all the more shocking. If the politics are far from clear cut,  what this photo speaks to, literally and in a definitive way, is the citizen against the machinery, awesome it is, of the military state. There’s that, and how the military, in its blind, callous and maniacal crackdown, equates the opposition with garbage.

And there are so many other narratives here. The apparently futile gestural dialogue between the woman and the soldier, the beseeching versus instructing (I assume), speaks to the utter failure to communicate.  The fact these two figures stand not just for themselves but, unavoidably and respectfully, for the machine and the martyr, every matter of fluid already spilt, is profoundly sad. That this figure appears beside the bulldozer also manages to brings the conflict back to a human scale, suggesting, among other things, that those behind the monolith are just small men. And then, the photo wouldn’t have nearly the impact if that were a man in the foreground. As her garment bisects and visually connects her to the fallen, barefoot young man, the woman also stands for all the opposition’s mothers and wives.

As evocative as the photo is, I invite your reactions and the meanings you see.

(photo: Mohammed Abdel Moneim/AFP/Getty Images caption: A woman confronted an Egyptian military bulldozer near a wounded protester. The crackdown was the clearest sign yet that the old Egyptian police state was re-emerging in full force, defying the protests of liberal interim cabinet members, Western threats of a cutoff of aid or loans, and the risk of prolonged backlash of violence by Islamists angry over the theft of their democratic victories.)

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