An Undeniable Photo of the Dying of Dreams

"I should have left this page blank, for once."–K Madhavan Pillai

“I should have left this page blank, for once.”–K Madhavan Pillai

There are times when I just cannot help but think that humankind (photographers included) is in conflict with nature, and in essence, itself. Just look at what we do to our own environment, and talk about it so righteously, from afar. Better still, let us not talk about our planet, but of ourselves. When was the last time we planted a sapling and nurtured it until it grew into a tree, just like we do with our children?

Are we all that shortsighted and self-important? We must be. After all, these thoughts are not new. Huge blockbuster movies have been made from them. Even in those, there are grand speeches, and the human spirit eventually wins. We get our money’s worth of self-satisfying endings. For something more real, we turn to photojournalism— the mirror and archives of our times, albeit somewhat self-curated. These photographers often risk everything, including their sanity and soul, to show a world as it exists to a world at large. We sometimes glance through these pictures. We take it upon ourselves to talk about it, everyday, until we are immune, and suspicious of every image, forming opinions before we have taken the time to see them. We then need a conversation about it.

We move so far out of sight of being plainly receptive that, once in a rare while, the ordinary truth comes as a stinging shock, throwing us into an uneasy silence before we react, until the first of the voices start the cacophony yet again. Alan Kurdi. A beautiful little boy lies on a quiet beach, hands by his side, palms upturned, feet on the sand, face down at the edge of the placid, breaking waves, peacefully asleep. He wears a red t-shirt, knee length blue shorts, and black shoes. He is clothed like your child or mine, on a brisk morning by the sea. He sleeps like your child or mine. And just like your child or mine, Alan is obviously loved, nurtured, and cared for.

But in the simple, unembellished photograph, that could have been from your camera or mine, Alan will not awaken. An undeniable photo of the dying of dreams, I have yet to see a more deeply disturbing image in recent times. Somehow, equally disconcerting are the dialogue, analyses and criticisms that followed, of Alan’s family, the situation, the photograph and its viewers. Of course, if nobody talks, who listens? It is best to be silent, for a while at least.

This review originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Better Photography.

Tags: K Madhavan Pillai, Edit note, October 2015