By Frank Blechman
Before humans had much language, we drew pictures. Our ancestors understood that images were so potent that they imbued them with supernatural qualities. In the Ten Commandments, there is an explicit rule denouncing “graven” images.
Today, we don’t worship statues, exactly, but we still are having trouble explaining to ourselves what our symbols mean. For example, are memorials depicting long-dead Confederate military leaders just reminders of a time past? Are they assertions and affirmations of the values and causes those people championed? Are they simple calls to nobility or complex dog whistles to revive the dead and all they stood for?
As a former news photographer, I believe that pictures always tell us something we cannot express in words. Truth or lie, a picture reveals values, relationships, emotions, and perspectives of the maker; sometimes elements that we didn’t know before; maybe even something we would deny.
I was trained in photography by people who came into journalism during the depression and WW II. At that time, cameras were big, bulky affairs. Photographers were sent out with no more than two sheets of film and one flashbulb to “get the story.” The craft involved imagining what image you wanted, understanding what that would look like a fraction of a second before, getting at the right place with the right lens and the right film, and clicking the shutter a fraction of a second in advance of the actual event.
Even in the era of 35mm-roll film and motor drives, the question was the same: could you get to the right spot with the right equipment and could you see what you wanted to capture before it happened? A great photographer knew how to use the trashcan in the darkroom, too. If you only brought out the good ones, and killed the rest, people would think you only did good work. Still, we kept and filed the unused negatives because somebody on another day might want to tell a different story with these images. At that point, another, entirely different shot would be the winner.
With today’s cell-phone cameras, everyone is a photojournalist. We document the everyday and the unusual. We imagine that the ordinary means less when in fact every picture or video represents a choice we have made. This, not that. Now, not then. And ultimately, shared with the universe, not kept to ourselves.
None of our advanced technology has helped us answer the old question: what does an image mean? Is it “reality?” Is it a piece of reality? Is it just the surface of reality? Is it one thing or an infinite number of different things to different people? Is it just what it is, or a deeper metaphor?
None of our advanced technology has helped us answer the old question: what does an image mean? Is it “reality?” Is it a piece of reality? Is it just the surface of reality? Is it one thing or an infinite number of different things to different people? Is it just what it is, or a deeper metaphor? Or, as Sigmund Freud wondered, “When is a cigar just a cigar?”
I believe that images always tell something about the maker and the sharer. Historically, war memorials are never just works of art. They are political statements of values by the living for the living, only secondarily created to inspire the future. Most are built with public resources, set in public places, and used for public occasions. Most are loaded with symbols, explicitly intended to transcend the objects or images themselves. Memorial statues are larger than life. The most important ones are put on the highest pedestals. It is no accident that they are designed so we look ‘up’ to them. Memorials are never silent sentinels. They always have something to say.
Which brings us to the most important question: If we want to create monuments that tell future generations that we as a people valued justice, fairness, equity, and kindness, what should that image be? Is there a person or historic event that would symbolize and transmit our better angels?
The demonstrations of the last three weeks have produced memorable scenes of police officers kneeling with protesters, but no iconic images suitable for reproduction in bronze or stone. Around the country (and perhaps the world), there have been many productive private meetings among activists (Black Lives Matter) and elected officials. Would a tableau of diverse people sitting around a table convey the message? I don’t think so.
Perhaps a contest will bring forward this generation’s Maya Lin (designer of the unique Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC) who will help us find the unmistakable, unforgettable symbol of the changes we hope to see. We may have to work backwards. The key image may not be the final product, but the moment before, when we could see that the victory was within reach.
Until we find the right image, we have to grasp at symbols from other times and places. MLK. Gandhi. Doves.
Let us not give up on the idea of public monuments. They are no substitute for substantive changes now. Nonetheless, monuments built now will serve an important role in the future, reminding those who were not here that these good things did not just ‘happen’ by themselves. Hundreds of thousands of people of conscience took personal risks to make injustice undeniable and change necessary. They are heroes. Their actions deserve to be honored, celebrated, and commemorated for the benefit of future generations. Somehow. Someday. Soon.