Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Rorschach Snapshots

I'm always reading about how difficult it is to understand text on the Internet, though I insist that the difficulty is inherent in written texts, printed or handwritten, wherever you encounter them.  Reactions to this photograph have confirmed my belief that the same is true of images.

"Nobody can explain exactly why, but it's an incredibly stirring image", Glenn Greenwald wrote when he retweeted it.  The best response I saw was "The juxtaposition of his skin with the clothing of the people behind him. His semi-submergence and awestruck look. Biblical, almost. As if he's undergoing a baptism in stark relief to the selfies and cameraphones behind him."  I suspect that one reason why the image is so stirring is precisely that it defies a simple interpretation.

Aside from that one and a few others, I was entertained by the wildly varying interpretations people put on the boy's facial expression.  "A perfect mix of awe and hope."  "Poor scared and alone."  "I see loneliness, but also a soul open to wonders and beauty."  "Fear of the unk[n]own."  "POOR KID LOOKS SCARED."  "We are all the boy, wet and alone staring at the sky hoping."  And so on.  Some commenters seemed to think that the picture was taken in North America (or thought that Rio was in North America), and said he looked cold.  That's possible, but "Due to the resort's tropical climate, the sea is always warm enough for swimming year-round in Rio de Janeiro."  I haven't been able to find what the temperature was that night, but right now, at 7 p.m. Indiana time, it's 79 degrees Fahrenheit in Rio.

Images -- not just photographs -- give an illusive impression of concreteness compared to written material.  One problem is that a photograph is a slice of time, an instant captured and frozen.  So, for example, some people contrasted the boy with the people behind him taking selfies, and read him as a pure spirit reacting to the beauty of the fireworks.  But it's not impossible that he'd already taken a selfie, or took one later.  I doubt that the photographer would have bothered to circulate this image if the boy had been taking a selfie while he was photographed.  People tend to forget that these powerful images are selected, usually from among many, even if they aren't manipulated in other ways.

People say that A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words, and sometimes it is, depending on what how the picture is being used.  But a picture can generate thousands of words, as people try to interpret it.  As with a written text, interpretations can be tested against the original to some extent: if someone says that this photograph was taken at high noon, that the boy is a white man drinking a Mai Tai in a chair on the beach, those are factual statements that can be corrected or at least disputed.  But what the boy's expression means, what he was feeling and thinking, can't be known simply by looking at the picture.  If he were standing right in front of you, you still couldn't know -- unless you asked him.  And one of the most popular phenomena in human life is to find rationalizations for declaring that another person doesn't know what he or she feels or thinks.