Sunday, August 11, 2013

Are They or Aren't They?

The above photograph is apparently world-famous -- in fact, it won the photographer a Pulitzer Prize in 1968 -- but I don't remember having seen it before.  Someone posted it to Facebook this weekend, under the header "Amazing Facts."  It depicts one male utility worker giving CPR to another worker who'd been shocked by a high voltage line. The CPR worked: the stricken man survived to live another forty years, and the man who saved him is still living.

Of course it sparked a lot of comments, some eulogizing the courage of linemen, others questioning how the picture came to be taken -- some speculated that it must have been staged, because who'd have a high-quality camera on a work site? -- some babbling about "heros" and "angles" (meaning "angels, of course), and others fiercely defending the virtue of the men depicted, this was not a dirty gay kiss but the Kiss of Life.  The person who posted the photo set a high tone by beginning the caption with "It's not what you may think."  (Gee, I thought it was a lineman giving CPR to another lineman -- do you mean they were really making out?)  One commenter wrote to another, "I hope Someone lets you die if you need mouth to mouth. Or Elton John is there and does mouth to mouth."

There were, of course, the predictable exhortations to other commenters to "get your mind out of the gutter."  There's nothing wrong with two men kissing, there's nothing of the "gutter" in it.  It supports something I've long thought: you can't always (or even often) tell, just by looking, whether two people are touching each other affectionately, erotically, or (as in this case) therapeutically.  If the circumstances under which this photograph was taken weren't so well documented, it would be hard to be sure what is really going on in it.  (If you can bear to read an ignorant and virtually incoherent account of a homoerotic reading of the picture, look here.)  It could be a carefully staged erotic photo, though it isn't.  I can sympathize, in fact, with those people who question whether it really was unstaged, because the image is so clear and the disposition of the men's bodies looks as if they were posed as lovers.  (On the other hand, the photo also reminds me of paintings of the body of Jesus being taken down from the cross.  "Passion," after all, meant suffering before it meant strong erotic or emotional feeling.)  If you first read the photo as a gay image, that is entirely reasonable.  It just happens that it isn't.  If it's true that a picture is worth a thousand words, it's also true that pictures may need a thousand words to clarify their ambiguity, and the words that label or describe a picture can change radically the way we interpret it.