ALL OF US ARE ALL OF US NOW
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE MOST POWERFUL ROLE THAT PHOTOGRAPHY CAN PLAY DURING WARTIME, or, in fact, in the midst of any human catastrophe, is to find the images that unify: symbolic pictures that show the world, quickly and clearly, what it’s like for certain people under the gun of history, and how their faces, their fears, belong to everyone. We seek and need photographs that connect us.
At any moment, many of us are more than half a planet away from some of the biggest conflicts of our time, and so our ability to directly bear witness is limited. However, we avidly follow the most inclusive of the pictures that emerge, looking for our own lives within the shock and horror etched on the faces of people we will likely never meet. In normal times, we focus, strangely, on how different we are from each other: in dire times, we realize how very much alike we really are.
Sculptors, painters and photographers seek the universal in their depiction of human suffering.
The statue “Athena’s Prayer”, sculpted by American southwestern artist James Muir, was dedicated in 2018 for a war memorial plaza in the Arizona town of Fountain Hills. The work was commissioned to give special honor to the increasing role of women in recent global conflicts in a space that mostly memorializes men who served in earlier American engagements. The young woman stands with her helmet in her arms, looking up to heaven in a mixture of wonder and reverence. Or at least that was the stated intention of the artist.
On my most recent visit to the plaza, with the Ukranian invasion the stuff of daily headlines, the statue’s facial features began, to me, to more closely suggest not a professional fighter, but a citizen-soldier, someone newly enlisted into an existential struggle for survival, not in some far-off battlefield, but in her own neighborhood. Instead of her upward gaze being an entreaty to Heaven, it seemed to me now to show her watching the skies for signs of fresh Hell, and so I shot her with a softened, almost ethereal look, wreathed in a dark vignette, her torso cropped away to emphasize just the essentials of her emotions. I wanted to make her into what we all seek in times of turmoil…..a universal image, a recognizable mask of the common fears of the common person.
After 9/11, the phrase “we are all New Yorkers now” found resonance in the popular vocabulary, and it has been repeatedly customized over the past twenty-some years to embrace other tragedies, so that “we are all” whoever we most pity or with whom we pledge solidarity at a given moment. And alongside that sentiment are the pictures, pictures that show us that all suffering, all love of country, all sacrifice wears the same human features. We cannot readily wrap our arms around those who suffer so far away from us. But, at least in our choice of pictorial proxies, we can wrap their hearts around our own.