Friday, June 17, 2011

Love Survives: Why People Found the Vancouver Photo Hard to Believe

“Bystanders rushed to assist a woman after she was knocked on her head and trampled by riot police. As it turned out, the woman was not injured seriously.”

It is just by chance that that was not the caption people saw with the now-famous “kiss” photo from Vancouver. (I don’t have a license to reproduce the photo here, but you can see it everywhere today.) Police chased reporters out of the area before the photographer could take another picture or determine what had happened. Later that night, a news editor decided, probably correctly, that a romantic interpretation of the scene would attract more attention.

It took a day for the more complete story to emerge from eyewitness and second-hand accounts and photos taken from other angles. Putting them together, you can see a woman lying on the pavement in obvious pain and the spontaneous concern of people nearby.

In the interim, though, many viewers didn’t believe the photo was real. Mashable, for example, suggested that the scene was staged. The Village Voice labeled the photo an art hoax. Thousands of blog commenters insisted it must be a composite, two or more photos combined, even though there is nothing technical in the photo to suggest that.

If the photo is so striking and hard to believe at first, it is because of the juxtaposition of love and violence. This contrast is no less stark for knowing the whole story. Love is a man holding his injured girlfriend and preparing, perhaps, to shield her from one last kick, all the while catching his own breath. Love is also bystanders running over to see what assistance might be needed. These might not be the most profound forms of love, but even so, you can’t help marveling that such actions can take place at all in a scene dominated by riot police rampaging through an intersection knocking over as many people as they can reach while a terrorized crowd runs away as best they can.

It is especially unexpected to see this in a photo in the news, which usually seeks to depict violence and the accompanying fear as absolutes rather than interruptions. Life, of course, is never as absolute as a news story. Every day in reality, love survives violence. This is something we all want to believe. If we are skeptical, it is because we have been tricked so many times. We are afraid we are being tricked again this time. All this deception is itself a form of violence, and our fear, a natural reaction to it. But this time, the conclusion survives the initial deception. Violence passes by and is gone. Love survives.