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Pictures (2nd Prize Winner - Group II)

March, 2011
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“In his darkroom he is finally alone
 with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.
The only light is red and softly grows,
as though this were a church and he
a priest preparing to intone a Mass.
Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.”

– Carol Ann Duffy, War Photographer

*

Click. Click.

The shutter clicks without emotion.

These aren’t pictures of breathtakingly beautiful mountain views that makes you want to dive into the picture yourself. These aren’t pictures of guileless children playing in the green grass, their smiles like sunshine. These aren’t pictures of extraordinary orange sunsets on sea, a setting fireball staining gold and orange on the sea, in the sky, spilling light rays through the clouds.

These are pictures of homes destroyed, buildings on fire, military helicopters flying over the tattered streets on an unimaginable scale. These are pictures of helpless children with blood stained on their faces, nowhere to hide, sheer terror on their face, calling out for help. These are pictures of men and women, screaming, shouting, crying as another day of blood sets.

It’s something the old man will never forget, though he is now old and crumpled; he still wakes with cold sweat at night with the memory, as if yesterday. His adoptive son who visits him often had asked him about it. He just stares sadly at his son’s arm, sewn short at elbow.

Click.

The photographer takes another photo. A photo of a child running naked down the street, bare and exposed to the virulent biochemical. More capture of moments the photographer takes: A man on fire. A woman screaming.

The photographer was young, with messy dark hair and two strands that fell over his eye. Casually dressed with his camera in front, he tries to look impassive. He is only doing his job. He is not afraid, nor does he allow himself to think about the pictures he takes. He’d flown all the way from the other side of the world to this foreign country in the Middle East, where war broke out and chaos erupted. He didn’t hesitate. He needed new opportunities. The next thing he knew, he was capturing photos of machine guns spitting bullets, human flesh burning, men slowly dying of exsanguinations, blood staining into foreign dust.

A job is a job. That’s what he thinks. He didn’t realize that when he settle down alone in the dark room at the end of the day, washing out the captured moments from day, he’d see ghosts of pained faces, slowly twisting onto the films. He didn’t realize when he see the photographs of men and women, captured by at their very last moment of life, their very last time of seeing light, he’d feel the horror; the ghostly sound of the women screaming for her husband, the man’s strident shouts of horror as his flesh burns like hay on fire. They’d all come back.

But now he just continues his photographing. Smoke arises from ruined buildings, streets bare with last night’s red rain.

A woman’s eyes plead him to help her. She cries out desperately in her language, reaches out to him with her hand, her shirt torn. He just takes the photo and walks away.

A man, fear written all over his face, runs toward the photographer. Sweat and blood plasters his hair to his face. He sees the photographer. For a millisecond, hope flickered in his eyes. Then he freezes, hands still outreached in front of him, his mouth agape. It’s as if he became a captured frame in a still picture, though the photographer was sure he hasn’t press his finger on the shutter yet. The photographer’s confusion clears away as the light in the man’s eyes dim. He pitches forward and collapse to the ground, the spark of hope that never left in his eyes.

The photographer tightens his lips grimly. He takes a photo of the man.

Emotionless men with machine guns, ready to fire on command. Helicopters flying overhead, loaded with lethal weapons and biochemical.

The photographer takes what he needs. He sets his camera on the right angle and takes the picture. Someone faraway is shouting for him to leave. It’s dangerous! They’re probably shouting, Get out of the way! 

He leaves, not daring a last look at the street covered with bodies.

His mind starts to wonder why he’d taken this job in the first place. He didn’t need the money, not for himself. Perhaps it was the excitement and the constant risk it puts him into that wanted him to do it. Like what people always think of war photographers: adrenaline junkies. He always wanted new excitement in his life. Perhaps he wanted to witness war itself, for everything he knew about it were from screens and papers. Either way, he realizes this is nothing he had expected.  But a job is a job.

Though at the end of the day, in the his darkroom, where he washes out the faces of so many unknown men and women, spools of suffering set in order rows, he begins to realize that this is no ordinary job. In the dim, red glow where he is finally alone, the agonized faces appears slowly and faintly in the solution tray, like ghosts. Maybe some of them are lucky, just severely injured, disabled. He picks up the photo of the man whose arms were outstretched as he widened his eyes and shock dominates his face. He knows, that now, this man’s body is probably still on the street, face down to the ground, like a pile of rag. If anyone cared, his body was probably tossed in a pile among the others. His wife or children probably have no idea what actually happened to him. They wouldn’t know that a young photographer had clearly witnessed his death the, and now, is holding the washed out photograph of the man’s last moment of life. He’d present it to the newspaper editors, and out of a hundred or so photos, they’d pick two or three of them and print them on the Sundays papers. When the people pick up their newspapers for a read, they’d take a minute and prick a few tears when they see the pictures between lunch or bath time. And that’s all the man earns for his death, whose picture didn’t even make the front page. No one would remember the hundred others with more agonies in black and white.

And these faces of men and women will haunt him.

*

Click.

On one last day for his job as the war photographer, he’s seem innocents, of all age, life being taken away with sheer cruelness, and the way how life is so easily snatched away from men. All he could do was take photos. Some of them plead for his help; look at him as if he’s their last straw, clinging like how people cling on trains. And all he could do was take photos. He can’t do anything about it. He’s just the photographer.

He was preparing to leave when he saw the frantic young women who ran out the house. She was clutching at a bundle of something tightly. The photographer stared, astonished.

She reaches out, shouting at him for to halt. She wore a floral dress that was tattered, her feet were bare. Her black hair was twisted in a bun, but strands of slimy hair were escaping from it. As she came close, he realizes what must be in the bundle: a baby.

 She runs to him, breathing heavily. She points at him, and then at the baby, making gestures, her intention was clear: Save my baby.

The baby is sleeping, wrapped in layers of blankets, tiny knuckles hidden underneath the edge of the blanket, oblivious of what is going on around. He stirs slightly as his mother tries to thrust him into the photographer’s arms. The photographer freezes.

Not for the first time in days, the photographer feels hopeless. The edge of his controlled emotions escaping. How can he refuse to do so, when the women’s eyes desperately gripped his, willing to make him understand how much she wants to protect her son?  How can he bear to refuse when he’s seen how a life that’s just begun can be cruelly taken away within a snap of a picture? He thinks about the life that never will live; a crib that will never be warm again; a pillow that will never be dry at night; a heart that will never heal.

The baby’s asleep, his eyes closed. One of his tiny knuckles rested on the edge of the blanket. The photographer could even see the tiny blood vessels through the baby’s soft skin: so small and fragile.

Could he do it? He thinks to himself. He’d swiftly take the baby over. No one would see it. He’d go back to the little place he stays now. No one would know that a foreign photographer had just taken in a baby from a local woman. It was the least that he can do.

Then what? The logical side of him asks.  

He can’t smuggle a baby out of this country. He’s only the photographer. There’s no way he can do it.

Sometimes, he hates logic.

All of the sudden he was furious. In the past few days, he probably witnessed more deaths and horror than anyone can ever imagine in their whole life. This is real. This isn’t some game or film or play. This is reality. People die. But he can’t even save one single life.

He looks back at the mother with the baby in her arm. Tears streak down her cheeks when she saw the photographer’s decision.  

Can’t do anything. Can’t do anything.

It’s like a separate voice that whispers inside his head, drilling his consciousness.

A huge explosion sounded somewhere behind them, chaos breaks out immediately. The baby awakes, and starts to cry, his eyes squinting, baby pink cheeks flooding with blood, waving his tiny knuckles aimlessly. The woman heard the cacophonous noise, she begs one last time: Please, take my baby.

If there’s anything he can do, he needs to let world know. To show what makes Death lurk around the corners of the streets, and everything, close and true, to people. War makes monsters of men.

He pushes the woman’s offering away gently, walks away. After a distance, he turns around again.

 Click.

He snaps one last picture.

 

By Jennifer Jiang,

The British School of Beijing

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