I was reading a review in a recent London Review of Books (Vol 29, No 23) of a book called No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture and Liberal Democracy, by Robert Hariman and John Louis Lacaites. The book, as you’ve probably guessed from the title, talks of the process by which photographs come to represent not only the specific moment at which they are taken but something much larger; become icons, in other words. The review, by David Simpson, cites the famous photograph of the Vietnamese chief of police shooting a Vietcong suspect in the head, and the way it subsequently came to stand for everything that was wrong with that war. Later in the article, it mentions the photograph of the napalmed girl, which no one who has seen is likely to forget.
But it also makes an interesting comment about the way the image that is selected to act as this kind of resonant shorthand reflects not only the actual event – a dying man, a burning girl – but also the way we choose to see it. The example the book (and review) providesis that of the single student facing down the tanks in Tienenman Square. As an event, Tienenman Square was a triumph (and remains so, despite its suppression) not of individualism but of collectivism. It was a triumph of numbers. Yet we’ve allowed, or preferred, the single image that represents the event to celebrate an act of single heroism. This is perfectly in line with western ‘liberal’ notions of resistance, but it’s an incongruous and even offensive way of commemorating what went on. It’s foisting our sense of what matters onto people for whom that sense might be inimical.
It must be that we don’t want – or are unequipped – to see the event in those terms, in terms of the single emblematic life. We see them en masse. And I don’t know if this is a good thing – because the Holocaust can never finally be understood and to see it in terms of individuals would be, in some terrible sense, a sort of trivialisation – or a bad thing – because we think in numbers and the weight of numbers, and numbers are an avoidance strategy.