With Western eyes

This photo, the 2011 World Press Photo winner, could have been taken many places: in Iraq, in Tunisia, in Libya, in Cairo, in Palestine, in Syria. It was taken in Yemen, in October, by a Spanish photojournalist named Samuel Aranda. It was shot inside a mosque that had been converted into a hospital serving protesters against the Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. We know, because Aranda tells us, that it is a mother, holding her son. But the intimacy of their embrace could be taken many ways: she could be holding a stranger, showing him grace and warmth in his last moments. Her latex-gloved hands convey a clinical distance that could make the pair out to be complete unknowns, linked only be a revolutionary cause. The man is young–perhaps around twenty?–and sinewy, strong. The writing on his arm is mysterious. Is it a phone number–someone he would call if he got into trouble, perhaps? A tattoo–a phrase so personally meaningful that he wanted to keep it on his body? The woman–veiled except for her eyes, which are pointed downward–entirely escapes our superficial judgment, the ability of the Western gaze to objectively determine who a person is based on individual features and attire. We know only that she is a devout Muslim, and we imagine that she is praying to Allah on behalf of this man. Her gloves look worn and dirty. How many men had she treated the day that photo was taken? The photo strikes us as beautiful and important because it simultaneously captures the universalisms that exist in humanity’s emotional and spiritual core: kinship, mortality, loss, sacrifice–and yet it is so specific to this moment in history, to these uprisings in places that were, previously, relatively invisible to Western eyes. Aranda had to sneak into Yemen over the course of one month; he was the only Western photographer there. What he gave to us perfectly encapsulates the entire dizzying year of 2011: this constant critique, this refusal, of the legacies of post-colonial modernity in the Arab World. With Western eyes, we look on, wondering where it will lead next, what all the sacrifice will go toward, what the revolutions will build in the place of the undemocratic powers they have turned against, what legacy they will leave to their heirs, now that the legacy they inherited is eroding.

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One thought on “With Western eyes

  • Wow, Rachel. This is really amazing. Thanks for sharing. And, I’m happy you put those words into the world too… It gives the photo even more richness.

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