In 2006, World Press Photo selected as its photo of the year an image of the aftermath of the July War, Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon. In a piece by the late author and activist Mai Ghoussoub published on OpenDemocracy, Lebanese themselves disagreed as to the meaning of the photograph, some of them seeing in it an affirmation of life and others cause for revulsion:
That same afternoon, I went to a housewarming party and I overheard two young Lebanese arguing about the same photo. Both were in their 20s and very “cosmopolitan”. One said: I think this is a great photograph, it shows us as we are, not people associated only with war and destruction. The second one was appalled and said: this is the “new orientalism” – instead of the women depicted in Delacroix’s classic orientalist paintings, today we have these modern, model-type Lebanese women against a background of war and poverty.
The Guardian ran an article yesterday about what they call 9/11’s most controversial photo, one that bears a striking thematic resemblance to the Lebanon photo.
In that article, Jonathan Jones’ explanation of the 9/11 photo’s significance might serve for both images:
Today, the meaning of this photograph has nothing to do with judging individuals. It has become a picture about history, and about memory. As an image of a cataclysmic historical moment it captures something that is true of all historical moments: life does not stop dead because a battle or an act of terror is happening nearby.
Artists and writers have told this truth down the ages. In his painting The Fall of Icarus, the Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel depicts a peasant ploughing on as a boy falls to his death in the sea beyond: it is a very similar observation to Hoepker’s. WH Auden’s lines on this painting in his poem Musée des Beaux Arts apply perfectly to the photograph: “In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster…