Shadows of the Night

    What photographs oftentimes need, and yet only sometimes achieve, is a sense of truthfulness that depicts life as it really is, not just the “pleasant” aspects. There are unbearably tragic scenes but that are vitally important to see. They depict real scenes as they are happening. As I spoke to Professor Fitch recently, my first comment was that I didn’t know where in the world to begin with a study of three photographs. I was overwhelmed, and the first thing she did was to help me organize the rapidly-flowing river of thoughts pouring through my mind. I knew what the photographs were, and what they were about; I was aware of the great fears and terrors that malignantly seeped through my imagination, as I tried as best I could to imagine myself face-to-face with one of the scenes depicted. Trenchant, formidable visions of war. It was madness unbound; torrential battles with death counts immeasurable.

    And that was just what I envisioned, to say nothing of what was actually depicted. The first picture I had seen was untitled, but captioned “A Paratrooper Works to Save the Life of a Buddy.” The scene comes from the war that was, at very best, a stalemate: Vietnam. The soldier depicted is drenched, his shirt color darkened by the water. Deadly ammunition is visible on his belt, no doubt ammo that would be used in the next marauding expedition. You can’t see much of the soldier’s face at all, and yet you know what must be rushing through his mind. A sense of absolute urgency; a life hanging by a thread. Death is imminent, the Grim Reaper holds his scythe in one bony hand, waiting to strike and take the man to what can only be described as the Great Beyond. The soldier knows he must resuscitate his friend…he’s an ally, a comrade…he’s a brother. The fallen man appears to be black. His hair is dark and short, his eyes shut. He is unconscious, but the other soldier knows he has to try. Such pictures as this one were, unfortunately, not all that often to be found.

    I secondly refer to the famous picture by Nick Ut, “Children Fleeing a Napalm Strike.” The little girl in the center is named Kim Phuc. She flees in terror, her body having been burned by napalm, a thick liquid that burns like wildfire. During the Vietnam War, thousands of gallons of it were dropped on Vietnam, mainly to clear out sections of forest, but the smoldering, viscous liquid scorched people’s skin. This photograph was used, at the time of the war, as a propaganda tool by the Vietnamese, but also how this terrified girl became a living symbol of the atrocities and insidious events of the great war. Vivid images such as this one --- people fleeing in terror, villages lying in ruins, countless bodies --- are deeply ingrained in many people’s minds, especially those who were alive when the tragedy occurred. Other images, such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Nazi death camp images, are ones that cannot be erased from the memory. This scene’s frightened children depict very real emotions of absolute terror and abandonment of all hope.

    The last photograph to which I will refer was taken by an Automatic Reconnaissance Camera, called “Mirage Jet.” The malevolent silhouette of this French fighter jet and its sinister appearance, though cloaked by inky blackness, pervades the picture. The total annihilation and grim death implied here struck me as one of the single most horrifying images, the surreal depiction of gore is not used but more the bringing about of an inner terror. The jet’s indescribable atmosphere of darkness seems almost a personified death. Over this desert scene, several corpses lie on the ground, along with a bicycle, and we know that they tried to escape, but the invincibly evil and destructive force of the flying warship gave the poor people no hope of escaping the destroyer. Strangely this image is uniquely and profoundly impacting us; perhaps it is the unspoken presence of a ghoulish terror, whose immense power is left to the imagination.

    The common thread among these three photographs is their overwhelming, evocative emotion that all three pictures bring about, each in its own way. The image of the paratrooper makes us afraid, afraid both of losing a friend or loved one, but the haunting implications give us a dreaded image of what quite possibly is the most traumatic event that could befall someone. The image presents us with what could well be the epitome of despair. The second photograph’s hellish and aura, its vile tempestuousness, the searing inferno in which so many are trapped, relies on its visual imagery to a large extent, because there is no question in our mind as to what has happened. However, the madness that has both symbolically -- and also quite literally -- engulfed the scene comes from the anguish and profound fear of the children.

    Lastly, the third photograph’s profound imagery comes from both a visually and mentally traumatic scene. The cataclysmal, “gut-wrenching” feeling that is inspired within many of us comes partly from the distant and remote figures whose doom was almost surely the result of the attacking jet. Yet the most chilling image in this photograph seems to be the black phantom, which is a mirage jet. It is no mirage, however, though the shadow seems to be but an apparition or nightmare, we know deep down that it is not. I chose these three pictures because they provoked the most profoundly powerful emotion within me: this diorama of death and utter despair. Somehow, though, we survived that great tragedy, as we did so many. There was death, and much of it, no question, and these pictures sicken us yet we are drawn to them. Perhaps it is the knowledge, whether we admit it or not, that there still is hope. The Grim Reaper shows his cloaked, faceless form to us all eventually, but somehow we know that things may still be all right. Death isn’t the end of the play, it’s just an intermission at best; what lies beyond it nobody knows.

    But even when the darkness is at its paramount, there is still a small ray of light that, when we discover it and find hope because of it, we know that the shadows will evaporate with the coming of the next day. In other words, there is darkness, but there is also always light.