Photos that pierce us

6/28/19 UPDATE: Since posting this, I have learned a bit more about the people in the photo, and how in some traditions it is disrespectful to post photos of the deceased. I want to be mindful that I am not being exploitative, but honoring, of these souls who have suffered. So I am removing the photo but keeping the post. Most of us have seen the photo now – there is no more need to show it. Their names were Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, and his daughter’s name was Valeria.

You can support refugees and humane immigration in many ways. One organization doing good work you can check out is RAICES Texas.

Roland Barthes – from Camera Lucida (p26-27):

“What I feel (about these photos) derives from an average affect, almost from a certain training. …It is by studium that I am interested in so many photographs, whether I receive them as political testimony or enjoy them as good historical scenes: for it is culturally that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions.” 

“This second element which will disturb the studium I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, little hole – and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” 

It’s hard to look at. I wanted to immediately look away. But we must look. We must see. Barthes gives us in his writing a method of seeing.

Studium affect here is a disturbing one – two dead humans, facedown in a river. We have seen this photo today on many news sites, as it is of two refugees from El Salvador, whom seeking asylum, attempted to cross the Rio Grande near the US/Mexico border.

It’s disturbing, its shocking, its saddening. Of course it is. If you’re like me, your immediate reaction is disturbance, then  disgust and outrage. We call our representatives to fix immigration and we donate to charities and causes helping refugees. These thoughts and actions are good and justified.

We also place blame. We blame the president, or Democrats. We blame our immigration system, or the people who run the agencies. Maybe you even blame the people in the photo, who imperiled themselves attempting to circumvent “proper, legal” ways of crossing a border. Whatever it is we blame, we identify as “right” people.

In our current American cultural and political climate, the photo becomes an icon, through which we project grievance and receive sanctification for our political leanings.

The studium affect is one of indignation, which we then feed into the cultural and communal marketplace of ideology, politics, where indignation is the litmus for participation. Seeing does not truly happen on the level of studium.

But of the punctum – through the details of a photo which pierces, cuts, stings – we can begin to see:

The tiny shoes. The diaper butt: Simply naming these things and seeing them in this photo breaks our hearts.

The garbage in the river: empty Bud Light cans and bits of plastic amidst the reeds and grasses. I always sense in my body an anger and deep disappointment anytime I encounter litter. My recent sadness is finding deflated helium balloons in the wilderness – the ones you get for cheapo at the supermarket for Valentines Day or some other hallmark holiday as a useless recognition that it is that day and you are thinking of them. Yet I am not absolved – who has not used plastic? Who has not consumed beverages out of cans?

The shared black t-shirt: I imagine how desperate I would feel, to sense the river tugging me under the current and into the deeps, and to bind my child to me as best I could, to keep them with me.

The little arm around the father’s neck: Even in death, upon drifting and being churned by the river for several hundred yards, the gesture is held. I know that touch having received the same gesture, unbidden, from my own child. I am not a particularly touchy-feely person, but my son is. So when he offers loving touch, I receive it and affirm him for it, but not totally without discomfort.

In the irony of our digital moment, very little reality is revealed in photography. Most of our image-making is rooted in illusion – promoting ourselves, obtaining likes on social media, presenting a false self without the warts. The reality is that we are the people in the photo and we are the perpetrators of the injustice. We are connected. We suffer, we die, we die needlessly and unjustly. We drink the beer and throw the cans in the river. We perpetuate systems of injustice.

To see this image is to know and remember that we all experience the flow of muddy water – we contemplate it, bathe in it, are baptized in it, our corpses float in it, we dump our trash in it. To see is to drink all of it, deeply.

Taste and see.