“I refuse to look at that,” Vetfaan says as he closes the newspaper. “It’s such a sad, sad, sad picture. Somehow it tells me how sick the world has become, and I don’t want to be reminded.”
“That’s exactly why one should look at it, Vetfaan. We need to be reminded that society can simply not go on as if nothing has happened. We have to acknowledge the tragedy taking place in the Mediterranean – it is a mirror that forces us to take a good, long, hard look at what we’ve become.”
“Yes, Gertruida, I remember that other picture of the child and the vulture. It told me more about the circumstances in Sudan than all the reports in the newspapers.”
“Oh, the one that Kevin Carter took?” Gertruida remembers all too well the famous photograph taken by the legendary South African. “He won the Pulitzer, I think. He captured – in a split-second and a single shot – the entire tragedy of the war and the famine up there. That photograph wasn’t just a picture, it was a message to us all.”
“Ah, but do you recall the girl with the penetrating eyes? Man, that was a haunting picture as well!”
“You mean the photo of the Afghan girl? Sharbat Gula? Her picture was taken in 1985 by Steve McCurry and her enigmatic look conveyed so much! In her eyes, people saw despair, pain, uncertainty, even a plea for help and support. Some saw hatred there, others saw love.
“They found her again after 17 years and National Geographic ran the story. At least we know she survived…which is more than we can say about that poor child in Sudan. Nobody knows whether she survived – but the chances are slim.”
“The problem with these photos,” Oudoom says, “is that they capture something that has already happened. We cannot change that. And, in this age where we live in denial and find all kinds of ways to explain away our guilt, photographs are brutally honest in the way it depicts horror, shame or tragedy. Look at the furore caused by that dentist in America. If that photograph didn’t start circulating around the world, nobody would have known…or cared.”
“The world is an ostrich, Oudoom. We’re tortoises, hiding in a shell. When something horrible happens, we simply retreat to a safe place, close our eyes, and try to ignore the obvious.”
“But there’s something more.” Servaas closes his eyes as he formulates his thoughts. “I don’t understand why some images get to be these iconic photos, while others – equally strong and powerful – get ignored completely. Why don’t the pictures of the farm murders in South Africa go viral? Or, for that matter, the decay of the government’s so-called land reforms? “
“Maybe society has the ability to filter what we take note of? You know? We get bombarded with so much bad news, that we have developed a defence mechanism to protect us. And then, every so often, a graphic picture worms it’s way through the cracks and hits us with such honesty, that we are unable to block it out. That’s why photographs are so important: instead of the subjective reporting and opinions – so often pure propaganda – we are fed every day, a photograph is an objective reminder that you cannot fool all the people, all of the time. Pictures don’t lie. They tell the story of a thousand words in a single image. They force you to acknowledge reality.”
Vetfaan opens the newspaper again, unable to block out the picture in his mind. It’s just a picture, he tells himself, of something that happened far away. Just another picture…
Gertruida leans over to offer her small, white handkerchief, but Vetfaan ignores it. He’ll need something much stronger, something much bigger, before that image fades away.
If it ever does…