Ben Russell

Ben Russell
St Paul, Minnesota,
October 02
armed with weapons of mass procrastination.


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MARCH 19, 2011 9:14PM

Tragedy: Not lost in translation

Rate: 10 Flag

I have been assigned an image analysis for my writing class.  This is a copy of the first draft handed in last Wednesday.  The assignment is as follows:

 Choose an image and write an analytical response to it. This should include description of the image…. Your interpretation of it. Why you think the painter/photographer/ad person chose certain elements of the image or the image itself. What does it say – are there cultural factors to consider? What impact is it striving for in your opinion/ What factor does audience play here? Motive of the creator?

I have hit a road block.  I feel too much like I am putting words in the photographer's mouth (so to say).  I feel like the image is so powerful and so relevant to that I am overstating the point.  It's hard to say, but I just feel like the image stands for itself, and my words only serve to complicate the matter.  

 If anyone has any suggestions or tips to improve what I have going here it would be much appreciated.  Here is the image:

Tsunami aftermath 

Shards of wood and twisted metal cover the ground in a random display of nature’s strength.  A boy, no older than 10, stares blankly at an artifact he has arbitrarily selected amongst the debris, searching for anything to take his mind off of the devastation.  His gaze is fixated on the object in a desperate attempt to escape reality.  A woman approaches him with a cautious face.  Her body language and proximity to the boy suggests blood relation.  Perhaps, though, she simply recognized the young one as being alone and it was her motherly instincts that compelled her to go the child’s side.  However, her face portrays a level of awestricken perplexity that can only be attributed to the sheer gravity of the situation.  What is there to say at a time like this? Can words alone suffice to put an event like this in perspective?

            Anyone viewing this photo with even a sliver of knowledge of current events knows within moments the image’s origin.  The horrific events taking place over the past weekend in Japan have produced many captivating photos and videos, but this one, found on a slideshow titled “Images of the Week,” stood out not only because of the wreckage of the wave, but because of the compelling story that breathes through its pixels. 

The caption of the photo reads rather plainly, “A boy looks at an award certificate that he found among debris after an earthquake and tsunami struck Ofunato City, Iwate Prefecture in northern Japan March 13, 2011.”  The photographer clearly had a greater vision when taking this photo.  Like all artists, he or she deliberately chose the subjects to convey a message to an audience, which, in this case, happens to be the entire world. 

The photo contains an implicit dialogue between its two subjects that conveys dynamics of a mother hoping to reassure her child.  As a reader from the West, I find myself drawing conclusions about the strength of Japanese people, that even during a time of extreme duress, in a situation beckoning one’s nerves to unravel, this woman is there for her son.  Perhaps it is because my memory is scarred with horrific images of the chaos that ensued after Hurricane Katrina thrashed the Gulf Coast that I place so much emphasis on this point, but the one element not apparent in this photo is chaos.  The most impressive thing about the people in this photo is that even though they certainly share a common grief, there is an underlying sense that their togetherness is all that matters. 


             Sometimes as humans we fail to fully appreciate the impact that natural disasters have on the lives of people who experience them.  Next to personal accounts seen or read in the news, photos are often the only way for those not directly involved to validate the legitimacy of nature’s force.  Putting faces to such tragedies often hits us on a much more intimate level, as if these people become lenses for what it would be like to actually experience such an event. 

In the days and weeks following the disaster in Japan, I was astounded by the courageous response of the Japanese people during a time of such turmoil.  I thought back to the turmoil that characterized the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, both in the immediate relief efforts and prolonged political issues that still plague the region today.  What sets our societies apart?  We are both ‘developed’ nations; what was it that disabled the American people from displaying the same sense of order after Katrina?

Natural disasters, though often tragic, are typically events that force people to come together in the face of adversity.  They serve a purpose in our world; that is to remind us that we are all on this planet together, seeking the same peace, prosperity, and longevity of life.  The Japanese people are living proof.  Their response to this disaster serves as inspiration the rest of the world, a courageous illustration of togetherness, not lost in translation.


Author tags:

tsunami, earthquake, japan

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I must agree with toritto nice work, well done. I don't think you have to worry about not doing well on your assignment.
You chose the image..I'd have to ask why. Did you randomly pick it our of a page of photos? What about it spoke to you to begin with? Did you know what the boy was reading? I see all the things you describe. I also see, in the midst of the destruction, the chaos, the heartbreak- a child with what will now be a very different future from what he thought he faced yesterday, engrossed in an artifact from a past not so far distant...and at the same time, a world away from the current situation. Frozen in a moment between realities..
That would be.."pick it OUT, not "our". Ack.
I think what you wrote is great! As a mom I also recognized the simplicity and resiliency of children and in that lies hope. Good luck! rated~
Youv'e done a good job, but this sort of claim has no place in an essay like this, or a work of "journalism": "His gaze is fixated on the object in a desperate attempt to escape reality." "Desperate attempt"? Sez who, as my editors would ask. The photog got the caption right, deadpan and to the point. If your writing assignment was to READ INTO the photo your subjective impulses, you succeeded. but if it was to analyse the photo, you--or I--can only take away what it conveys. Which is an animated woman and a boy simply looking at a notebook, perhaps not even his notebook. Only by knowing the "scene" can you imbue the image with the emotion you do. What if it were simply a pile of driftwood on the coast of Maine, with an Asian mother and son sifting through it? You see what I mean? If I were your writing teacher I'd be looking for an essay that tells of only what is evidenced, and tells it well. That said, again, good work.
I just re-read the teacher's assignment. It's sloppy. He's asking you for things you cannot know, then asking for how you "felt" about things: "Why you think the painter/photographer/ad person chose certain elements of the image or the image itself. What does it say – are there cultural factors to consider? What impact is it striving for in your opinion/ What factor does audience play here? Motive of the creator?"

That's a load, which to me smells like lazy teacher. He/she has thrown everything at you but the kitchen sink. One example, how would you KNOW what the photog is striving at? Cultural audiences? WTF. You're a good thinker, good writer, you ask good questions, but this so-called assignment is bogus. You can tell your teacher BadScot says so. And in real life, I get paid to do what your teacher pretends to do--think and write.
I love your choice of the word sliver BTW.

Great work overall. You will do well. RRRR
I think the reason for your discomfort is found in TheBadScot's comments. I'm not a writing teacher, so all I can say is I think you did a credible job with the assignment. Is this a creative writing class or a journalism class?

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. It is a school assignment so you just jump thru the hoop. But in real life you give yourself assignments all the time. I love to look thru my photos for inspiration and I love to take photos with the objective of uniting them with some words. You are going to have so much fun when you are finally out of school and can be your own master.
Your first sentence is too weak. The story is really about the boy, so begin with him (the second sentence) but after "debris" include the first sentence but make it fit, etc. It makes the paragraph stronger. (Englist major and teacher here lol....)
Your instincts are solid. You had it right in your opening statement. Maybe you could expand on that?

Words and pictures are two separate languages, with different vocabularies that are not interchangeable. Verbal expression is even more inadequate in light of viewer projection. Everyone will have a different viewing experience. We bring ourselves to our interpretation, and few of us have experienced tragedy and loss on the scale that Japanese people are now facing. It seems futile to even try. What could one possibly say?

Given the impotence and failure of words, there are images that become iconographic, e.g. John Filo's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio screaming over the body of a student killed at Kent State. That single image holds the power to express the horror and disbelief of that tragedy, and continues to, decades later. Have we seen an image yet that will define what happened in Japan? In this age of image overload, I'm not sure we will.
I really like what Zanelle and Midwest said. Badscot made some very valid points. I truly believe that you have an extensive writing future to look forward to and it will be wonderful when you don't have these "assignments", and just write from your heart.
Sorry, I'm late to read and comment. I had started making a list but when I saw TheBadScot and 's responses, I decided not to be repetitious. The assignment was not well designed in the first place, but considering that, you did rather well, Ben. I still suggest you should stay from reading into the picture too much - such as : "A woman approaches him with a cautious face. "