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February 11, 2014

Why I Disagree with Picture of the Year’s First Place Choice of “Final Embrace”

Bangladesh embrce

Having looked at and thought on this photo each time it was feted in still another venue this year, its main problem, I fear, is how quickly and hard one falls in love with it. There is news photography and then there is fairy tale. Here, coworkers become lovers become Romeo and Juliet. And that’s about about art, and about us more than them.

The truth is, this photo doesn’t valorize the workers who died in the Rana Plaza eight-story building collapse in Greater Dhaka as much as it sentimentalizes. You would never see this photo on a protest poster as workers demanded better labor conditions. On a strictly emotional scale, the photo is the equal of any. But the beauty, the pathos, the intensity of the passion play, I’m afraid, is its own payoff far more than the image leads you to feel as much for the cause of their demise. Regardless if these two even knew each other, this photo speaks leaps and bounds more about love and love lost than it does about human rights or foreign trade.

I deeply respect Ms. Ahktar’s commitment to Bangladeshi factory workers, and her belief that this photo is a call to conscience for their murder by negligence. (Because the photo was included in our edit for the BagNewsSalon panel, “Photojournalism in Flux,” at Photoville last September, we even gave Taslima the floor at one point to describe the photo and its political importance.) Despite its best intentions, though, this exquisite scene too singularly engages the heartstrings. If this photo, in all its intensity, also elicited a political reaction, then the other more evidentiary elements, the stunning pink fabric, the snaking pale green material with the brown dots and that protruding fragment of factory floor, wouldn’t remain largely invisible until someone pointed to them.

The second fact is, this photo is tailor made for a Western audience and a Western media intrinsically wired to turn suffering in distant lands (about “them” “over there”) into noble portraits evoking abstract empathy. In spite of its gripping quality and the monopoly of beauty, this photo would never have appeared (and certainly, wouldn’t have been running away with rewards) if it showed an American couple in the rubble of Hurricane Sandy, or the explosion in Waco, or the soot of the Boston Marathon bombing, or Oklahoma City, or the World Trade Center. In that case, nationalistic anger, pride or shame, or the dis-ease of climate change, overbuilding or security lapses would surely defy the poetry, just as much as complicit Western retailers and major media advertisers, such as Gap and Walmart, would have us overwhelmingly focus on the passion, too.

Last October, I came across a post in the NY Daily News and a 17-photo slideshow about a loving American couple in Washington State that, even after a fatal car accident, were still holding hands.

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In terms of comparison, there are certainly confounding variables here, such as the likelihood that the car crash victims, Floyd and Margaret Nordhagen (92 and 88) didn’t present themselves for viewing the way the Bangladesh couple did. Or maybe the NBC affiliate KHQ just didn’t get there soon enough for that kind of picture. For the sake of argument, though, let’s imagine a capable freelance photographer from Spokane had witnessed the accident, stopped and captured something as eloquent as the Bangladesh so-branded “Final Embrace.” Let’s imagine also, though, that the couple had died because the brakes on the truck that hit them when they pulled out of the pet store were produced by a U.S. manufacturing company, and were not only faulty but had caused the death of another 1,129 people the exact same day.

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Set stateside with economic malfeasance written all over it, could you imagine the elegance of that photo coexisting nearly as well with its own political context? Could you imagine us losing our breath just as much for the beauty?

Addendum: A point I left out above has to do with this photo acquiring its own name, “The Final Embrace.” You’ll notice, in being popularly identified this way, the photo pulls further away from its source, forsaking its largest opportunity to balance or fuse the political with the emotional/beautiful. (You don’t hear it referenced as the “The Bangladesh Embrace,” “The Rana Embrace,” or more specific to Ms. Akhter’s intent, “The Garment Worker’s Embrace,” by the way.)  The acquisition of its own more generic and universalized name (think: Gisele or Bono) also distances the photo from its editorial context, making the photo less a story about an event and the workers these figures represent than its own soulful and artistic object.

(Note: The specific award was first place for spot news in the Picture of the Year, International photo contest. photo: Taslima Akhter. caption: April 25, 2013. Two victims amid the rubble of a garment factory building collapse in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh)

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