A good image is one that tells a story, one that invites the viewer to fill in the blank spaces between the points of inflection. And by story, I don’t necessarily mean the type you learned about in high school literature class, with the classic build, arc and climax, and then conclusion. Rather, I’m talking about any image that draws you in and makes you wonder: what is the subject doing? What is he or she thinking about? And as you answer those questions, the story forms.
In the photo above, I wonder… where is the lone hiker headed? Why is he alone? And a not insignificant part of the storytelling happens when the viewer places him or herself into the scene. As a dreaming wanderer, fine landscape photos have a tendency to call out to me, beckoning me to that location. And in my mind, I’m typically willing to oblige the call.
That’s a good image.
But what makes for a great image?
For the purpose of this essay, I contend that a great image is one that provokes an emotional reaction. A deeply personal emotional response. For example, the photo at the top of this post was taken in Pass Christian, Mississippi, in the days after Hurricane Katrina. I had an opportunity to photograph the aftermath of the storm on the coastal area that had once before been decimated by a hurricane (Camille in 1969). On one particular day, we encountered a Catholic parish community that was gathering to celebrate Mass in a now gutted church that had been previously rebuilt after Camille leveled their church. The churchgoers stood amidst the ruins and, seemingly undeterred, went about their celebration.
The statue of the Blessed Mother in the above photo is one that is, to me, particularly beautiful. You’ll note, however, that there are scratches and divots on the cheek and on the bridge of the nose. Otherwise, it looks to be a fairly normal physical depiction of Mary. Here’s the story: this statue, on the day of our visit, was in front of what once was the front entranceway of the church structure. But the statue had never been previously on the grounds of the parish. It was found several miles inland from the campus by a women who described herself only as “non-Catholic” and who spotted the statue lying face down in a twenty-five foot tall pile of rubble where a few houses once stood. Given the tidal surge that Katrina brought to the coastal towns, that statue could have been carried from nearly anywhere along the waterfront. The woman, not knowing what to do with the statue, had a burning sense that she shouldn’t leave it in the rubble, so she pulled it from out of the ruins and brought it to the spot where she remembered a Catholic church one stood. For the gathering parish, this statue became a reassuring symbol of hope and rebuilding. And whenever I view this photograph, I remember the striking scenes of devastation I saw on that trip and the story of the woman who found the statue. I recall the power of the symbol and so it conjures up in me an emotional response.
An emotional response? Absolutely. For me. But for you? Perhaps not. It’s completely personal as two individuals may look at one photograph and have completely different and even opposing reactions. What follows is an example.
Consider the one photograph referenced in this story, a piece written by Bud Welch, a manager of a gas station in Oklahoma City.
When my only daughter, Julie, was killed, I joined a “club” that I wish had no members. The price of admission is too high. I know the pain of losing a loved one because of a senseless act of violence. Julie Marie was the light of my life. She was so bright, so kind, and so caring. She was my friend and confidante. After graduating from college, Julie worked as a Spanish interpreter for the Social Security Administration in Oklahoma City. Every Wednesday, we met for lunch at a Greek restaurant across the street from the Murrah Federal Building. Our lunch date on Wednesday, April 19, 1995 was never to be.
…When Julie was killed that morning with 167 others in the bomb blast at the Murrah Building, the pain I felt was unbearable. I was also filled with rage. I wanted Timothy McVeigh executed. I could have done it with my bare hands. I didn’t even want a trial. I just wanted him fried. I call it the “insanity period”–I went through five weeks of insanity. Now I know why people accused of committing horrible crimes are rushed from the car to the courthouse wearing bulletproof vests–because victims’ family members are so crazed and angry that they would take the law into their own hands.
A few weeks after the bombing I saw Bill McVeigh, Tim’s father, on television. He was working in his flowerbed. The reporter asked him a question, and when he looked into the television camera for a few seconds, I saw a deep pain in a father’s eyes that most people could not have recognized. I could, because I was living that pain. And I knew that some day I had to go tell that man that I truly cared about how he felt. One Saturday morning two years later, I finally found myself in Bill McVeigh’s driveway. I sat in the car, not knowing what I was going to be able to say. Then I went up and knocked. He came to the door, and I introduced myself. I said, “I understand that you have a large garden in your backyard,” and that excited him. He said, “Oh, yeah, would you like to see it?” I said, “I’d love to.” So, we spent the first half-hour in that garden getting to know one another. Then we went into the house, and spent an hour visiting at the kitchen table. His 23-year-old daughter Jennifer was there. As I walked in I noticed a photograph of Tim above the mantelpiece. I kept looking at it as we were sitting at the table. I knew that I had to comment on it at some point, so finally I looked at it and said, “God, what a good-looking kid.” Bill said, “That’s Tim high school graduation picture.” A big tear rolled out of his right eye, and at that moment I saw in a father’s eyes a love for his son that was absolutely incredible. After our visit I got up, and Jennifer came from the other end of the table and gave me a hug; we cried, and I held her face in my hands and told her, “Honey, the three of us are in this for the rest of our lives. And we can make the most of it if we choose. I don’t want your brother to die. And I will do everything in my power to prevent it.”
One person looks at a photograph and sees the murderer of his only daughter. Another sees the young boy he raised, and loved so dearly.