The Purloined War
[An image of stylish Lebanese youths driving through a Beirut neighborhood devastated by Israeli bombing, taken by U.S. photographer Spencer Platt, won the World Press Photo of the Year award, the jury announced Friday. The image contrasts a group of friends against a background of the wreckage of a collapsed building. Tellingly, one woman grimaces as she uses her mobile phone to send a text message to a friend, while another, wearing sunglasses, covers her nose with a handkerchief. The award, which Platt took while working for photo agency Getty Images, is considered one of the most prestigious for photojournalists. The photo was taken on Aug. 15, the first day of a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah, as thousands of Lebanese began returning to their homes. The chairman of the jury, Michele McNally of the New York Times, described the shot as ''a picture you can keep looking at...It has the complexity and contradiction of real life, amidst chaos. This photograph makes you look beyond the obvious."]
A captivating picture, indeed. The contrast is so striking, viewers can be excused for suspecting it is two different images superimposed. Actually, it would make a very nice illustration for the dictionary entry, 'class'. The driver-bys are positively irritating in their conspicious "otherwordliness". They remind me of a scene from L'Haine where the shiftless suburban kids yell out to the reporters exploring the neighborhood timidly from within their car, "Come out here, this ain't fucking safari!". That being said, there is more --in a sense "less"-- to this picture than the "contrasts and contradictions" of the Lebanese society; there is an element the picture hides despite fully exhibiting it...namely the war, or better put, the Israeli invasion. The picture obliterates this reality, all the while using it as a backdrop. In effect, a foreign armed aggression is displaced onto a domestic class conflict. There is no denying that class (understood here in the income/wealth sense) affects one's life chances; but it is unfortunate that this observation should come at the expense of the fact that just a couple days ago, at this very site, nothing was a bigger threat to life than Israeli bombing. The picture, however, makes you forget this reality; the background might very well be a scene of an earthquake. And I'm not ascribing the photographer any intentions here. For me, the picture succeeds for a reason presumably he never intended --that is, the Purloined Letter-like occlusion it creates in relation to the war. And in that regard, I think my aesthetics and politics part ways in the case of this picture.