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op-ed
november 2012

The man in the picture

 





  Op-ed
by Hans Durrer
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A photograph freezes the moment, it makes the world stand still, it arrests time.

There are photographs that have a place in our collective memory. The man facing the tanks in Tianamen Square is one of them. There are at least four "tank man" photos, as the Lens Blog of the New York Times reported on 3 June 2009, and also stated:

"To this day, the identity and fate of the man in the picture remain unclear. A riveting documentary, The Tank Man, by PBS Frontline in 2006 explored his fate. Yet still no one knows for certain who he is or what exactly happened to him. The image is largely blocked on the Internet in China. Despite its iconic status and historical significance elsewhere, most young people there do not recognize the photograph."

  I must admit that I find it rather astonishing that the story (or the stories) behind this picture that many political commentators in the West hail as an important symbol of resistance against ruthless oppression remains virtually unknown.
  Photographs direct people's eyes, they point at what people should focus on — and thus attempt to define what people should think and talk about. And people, led on by the media, fall for it. In the case of the 'tank man': Western media point out his bravery, Chinese media highlight the restraint of the tank commander. Thus the photo of the 'tank man' has become memory. But it has also blocked memory — the memory of many other things that happened on this day. For by giving prominence to a moment, this photo has made all the other moments appear less significant.
  Needless to say, there is nothing wrong with that as long as we do what we are meant to do when looking at photographs: to ask questions, to be inquisitive, to wonder how the picture came about.
Next Pictures tell us stories, we are often told. Well, they don't, they only trigger our imagination. And our imagination needs to be questioned. Who was the 'tank man'? How had he spent his day? What went through his mind? What went through the mind of the commander of the first tank? Did he act the way he did because of he was ordered to do so or was his manoeuvring (as shown in a video) his own decision? And so on, and so on.
  Many of these questions can probably never be answered but asking them will alter our perception of this image.
  In order to not fall victim to the professional meaning providers in East and West, we need to visually empower ourselves. And that primarily means to insist that we can see and think for ourselves. It also means that the more we know about a photograph — who took it, when, where, under what circumstances, etcetera — the bigger the chances that we learn to understand that a photograph is nothing but a photograph: a two-dimensional reduction of a three-dimensional reality that neither smells nor sounds but nevertheless seems to represent reality — something truly magical that is.
  There is no right or wrong reading of a photograph but a more or less educated one. "Regardless of historic fact," John Szarkowski wrote in his Looking at photographs (1999), "a picture is about what it appears to be about." Yes, but to whom?
  Since a photograph in and of itself has no meaning, its reading depends largely on what we know about it, how it came about, and what happened after it was taken. In other words, how we read a photograph depends on the information, and the convictions, that we bring to it.
   
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