All text by Anthony Labriola.
In the words of Ansel Adams, “There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment.” The photographer stresses the split-second timing of capturing the humanity of a photograph. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what words are worthy of that picture? Despite where we come from, each of us has likely reacted to the “humanity of the moment” in pictures dear to us, or those that alarm us, and shock us. But what images cut across all borders and boundaries to galvanize the moment of human joy or sorrow in all of us? Which photographs transcend politics, sexual orientation, national boundaries, prejudices, and special interests to allow us to enter into the drama of human experience? Those images reflect our “shared humanity.” We behold the image, and through a transformation of our perceptions, sometimes we “become what we perceive.”
I have selected four photos that shock, provoke, challenge, and even devastate me. These photos cut across many lines by crystallizing the moment “humanity” is under threat. In a surprisingly direct and vivid way, the photographs elicit a response beyond fear. This response is sometimes an act of defiance in the face of terror. For people of conscience, such images help to create empathy, which results in a call to action. We know that photos can be “doctored,” and that people, buildings, and even events can be “airbrushed” out of history. Each person, as well as each nation, family, ethic or cultural group, has images that are sacred to them, or that capture the truth in the sense that “seeing is believing.” Or in the words quoted by Samuel Beckett: “To be is to be perceived.” We look at an image, and enter into its depth of field, and sometimes we feel that we are becoming what we see. These poems deal with this transformation of our perceptions—seeing into becoming—when we see common humanity suffering. In a response to such anguish, we “share” in the heartache and shock of the experience. But beyond the heartache is a call to prevail and endure. We can enter into the image, which then imprints itself into our mind’s eye. Our way of seeing is changed, sharpened, and focussed. What is our response to such photographs? I invite others to open their photo albums or the image files to show us the pics that are part of their own moments of humanity.
In “The Story of a Picture,” the iconic photograph brought us an image of the War in Vietnam—the Vietnamese War or the American War—depending on the historical perspective. Nic Ut, the photographer, has gone on record to say that he was, in honour of his brother, looking for an image that would bring the war home to us, and compel us to change our hearts and minds to the point of acting to end the war.
He set down his camera and tried to help the little girl. She has suffered greatly since the picture was taken, including reliving the moment in the “story of a picture.” However, now a grown woman, married and with children of her own, she lives in a small community close to where I live in Canada. I have heard her speak about that picture “in her own words.” I have also heard the gratitude in her voice, and how she forgives the bomber and the bomb. She forgives in the name of compassion, but does not forget the story as she lived it of the photograph.
In “The Sequence of the Falling Man,” the tower is in flames. The unknown man's leap or jump acts in defiance of the attack on 911. Who is he? What is his name? He is a son, perhaps, a brother, a husband, father, and friend. His is called the “falling man.” But his fall is a response to devastation. It shows humanity under siege. Is he a victim, or a victor? The sequence of images draws us in, unable to believe what we are seeing. He vanishes, but the sequence remains in our consciousness with its visual power and impact.
In “Tank Man,” the unknown person stands in front of a tank in defiance of its power and potential for destruction. He “dances” what some have called “the tango” in front of the iron-plated symbols of force and control. He is balanced in his steps, as he balances his shopping bags. Do the unknown contents of the bags challenge the tank to reconsider simply crushing him? Does he carry explosives, or his provisions as he returns home from the market? He steps into history, and then disappears. But the image burns into our awareness, and acts as a way of changing our image of the image of what humanity is.
“In Little Syrian Girl,” the child holds her arms up in surrender, thinking that the photojournalist’s camera is a weapon. She sees such actions everyday. It is the look on her face that captivated me. She does not seem to be afraid. It is a reflex action, but it shows great defiance in the face of fear. It is a heartbreaking image because it shows the impact of war and struggle and the way innocent children carry the burden of the violence.
Editors' note: Be sure to read "Raft of the Medusa", a previous publication by Anthony in ZiN Daily, about building compassion towards refugees, immigrants, and other migrants.
Anthony Labriola’s work has appeared in The Canadian Forum, PRISM international, Vallum: Contemporary Poetry, Stone Voices, Still Point Arts
Quarterly, Passion: Poetry, and The Colours of Saying, ZiN Daily, Strange Fictions (Vagabondage Press. His poetry collections include The Rigged Universe (Shanti Arts Publishing), Sun Dogs (Battered Suitcase Press), Invisible Mending (Anaphora Literary Press), and The Blessing of the Bikes & Other Life Cycles (Anaphora Literary Press). His published prose works include Devouring the Artist (Anaphora Literary Press), The Pros & Cons of Dragon-Slaying (Anaphora Literary Press), Poor Love & Other Stories (Anaphora Literary Press), and The Lonely Barber (Anaphora Literary Press). The Japanese Waltzing Mouse & Other Tales (Cranberry Tree Press) appeared in August 2016. He studied at the University of Toronto and received a B.A. in English and French, a B.Ed. in English and Dramatic Arts, and an M.A. from the Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama. He taught English, Drama and Performing Arts for 32 years, during which time he wrote and directed many plays and musicals. Then went on to teach Life Writing at Seneca College. He lives in Toronto with his family.
(Click on the poem titles to see the photos.)
Story of a Picture
In a rain of fire, napalm bombs rain down.
Out of the firestorm, a little 9 year-old Vietnamese
child runs naked along the burning road.
The napalm girl, with arms outstretched, like a wounded
ballet dancer, in second position, surrenders
to the flares. Behind her, fruit trees are also burning.
Her house is gone in plumes of napalm.
When the bomber unloads its burden of bombs,
the black road melts into a river of fire,
river of blood and cries. In long, thin twisted arms,
an old woman hauls the deadweight load of her son.
The little boy’s skin falls off, like strips of black fabric.
His body hangs by singed human threads.
But the nine-year-old girl, stripped bare by the wind,
runs towards the camera. A photographer,
Nick Ut, happens to be there that day, looking
for a way to bring the war home, takes the shot.
Then sets down his guilty camera to help the girl.
For the rest of her life, she can’t escape
the picture and its story. Water, thrown over
her shoulders, boils her skin.
Later, the hospital room is filled with napalm dreams
and the Fall of Saigon. But love burns brighter
than her skin, brighter than death. It takes her arms
and folds them into a gesture of forgiveness.
The little girl in the picture is a child of war.
But she has a name and her own story to tell.
Kim grows up and marries, and becomes our neighbour.
She learns to forgive without forgetting,
and knows what it is to forgive the bomber,
the bomb and the war. She even forgives
the photo and the story of her picture.
Sequence of the Falling Man
Who is the Falling Man? Is he Icarus
in shirt and tie? But where are his wings
of feathers and wax? Is he a businessman,
jumping to his certain death with the fake news
that the stock markets have finally crashed?
Maybe, he is Superman hit by kryptonite,
or Sisyphus refusing to push his punishing
boulder up the impossible mountain slope.
Or is he all of the above, falling from above?
Maybe, the Falling Man is afraid of fire?
Is he a huge, humanlike bird, plunging
to earth with screams, dust and the smell of jet fuel?
Maybe, the Falling Man is a protester
of sudden death. Is he an accidental
aerialist in free-fall? In a death-defying
leap from a blown-out window, headfirst,
is the Falling Man an arrow-headed skydiver,
his aerodynamic body pointing downward
in a calculated fall? Who pushed him
from behind, or off a high diving board?
Is this last, living act a compulsion
to die in mid-air and not in the flames
of a burning, twin tower? What does he know
about the conspiracy of gravity?
In the sequence of the Falling Man,
as he falls, appearing to fly, relaxed
in the simple motion of sure death,
the end, accepted, gripped by the tail,
the suction of the bombed-out room,
and the black smoke billowing,
is the Falling Man double-crossing
history by his one act of defiance?
Back from shopping, Tank Man carries his bags
across Tiananmen Square. Tanks, like rhinos,
block the road. But Tank Man stands his ground
in front of the iron horns, and keeps one of the beasts
from moving left or right. It can stampede him,
or trample him to death. Yet on this day,
Tank Man refuses to budge. He continues
to dance the tango with the tanks, holding
his shopping bags, until he disappears.
Little Syrian Girl
Because the camera is a gun, the little
Syrian girl gestures with small hands
held high in surrender. The photojournalist
captures the perpetual hand games
of those in the refugee camp. But the little
girl is an enclosed garden with almond trees,
figs, olives and berries. On white stone benches,
she sits like a bowl of cinnamon, garlic,
or cloves, crushed. She corresponds to coriander,
basil and laurel, almonds, and pine nuts,
even Aleppo pepper. On stone steps,
water flows with her gown, and cascades down
a stepped waterfall. With a tear jar in her hands,
grief is undetected. To the scent of oranges,
pomegranates, and mangoes,
day and night, she stays as still as a jar
of peppers, yellow and red, drying in the sun.
She’s a cluster of grapes falling from hanging vines
on the other side of the wall. Everywhere –
the smell of palm trees, and scented leaves.
Her eyelids open and refuse to close
for the eclipse. Surrounded by jaguars,
leopards, dogs, and scorpions, she listens to
Arabic music. Outside the iron gates
(all night long in aerial bombardment): 24 tones
between keys on the oud touch her sad heart.
Violins can be heard with the baying
of wild dogs. She is a garden whose frame
limits uncollected things. When seen through veils,
or close up, she is reflected in a dark pool.
Plants don’t quite fit together. But once viewed
from a distance at night in her bed,
there is harmony in discordant parts.
She seeks the wilderness in pillars of smoke.
With merchant’s perfumes, she is a tomb of stone flowers.
Born from stone, neglected, regretted,
legendary, in the thousand-and-one-nights
she spends in prayer, and dancing, she waits for
bombs to fall like stories and prophecies,
like veils to be fulfilled beyond Scheherazade.
With hands held up to the sky, in surrender, she waits
on a mountain of spices, as in the Song of Songs.