A Word In Edgewise: Putting A Face On It

“It” can be most any image you can think of: that Ah-ha! photo that makes a person (or creature, or event) real to you, never again a statistic or ignorable cipher.

It can be a victim of war and displacement, it can bring home the plight of abused animals. The joyous, the wondrous, the mysterious can also have a face. NASA’s Viking 1 mission to Mars was launched thirty-nine years ago this month. Designed to transmit for 90 days, it went on sending for over six years. For a Ray Bradbury geek like myself it was a thrill to see that man had, via Viking 1 and 2, actually touched the red planet’s surface.

Photographer Brandon Stanton, who on Facebook and in his blog and book Humans of New York (HONY) has for several years now shared portraits of New Yorkers, is currently on a UN-sponsored tour of dangerous areas and war zones around the world: Etril, Iraq, Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ukraine, South Sudan, and Haiti.

Some criticize that his portraits are simplistic, not showing the full complexity of an area’s problems. But given the absence of our own information on the peoples he’s visiting, he’s wise to start with the basics: a face. One reader replied he was shocked to see that these foreign lands have shopping malls: “I thought there was nothing but villages and dust.” A young man from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, one subject of a Stanton portrait, shared, “I’m studying to be a civil engineer. Congo needs everything: bridges, roads, buildings, wells. The Congo is like a workshop.” You can feel the connection.

Others know the power of the “Face,” and are not pleased to have it shown to the public. Getty Images photographer Scott Olson was one of several journalists arrested in Ferguson, Missouri covering the shooting death of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson. An image of Olson being led off in handcuffs (for “not getting out of the way fast enough”) was taken by a colleague, who stood his ground to put a face on the moment.

We can reach out to others through images and be moved through them. They can open our eyes, our horizons. Welcome them and learn.

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