Many of us who grew up during the Vietnam War remember one photograph in particular: a naked Vietnamese girl running down a country road, in flight from a napalm attack, her mouth open in abject terror and hands held out, desperately searching for comfort.Read More
Inside the frozen time of the image, the girl will forever remain abandoned to her fate, ignored by the three uniformed soldiers walking behind her.
Over the years, I've often wondered whether the photographer offered protection to the desperate girl as she ran past him, though perhaps it's unfair of me to hope he did. After all, photographers are observers, not participants. Or are they? Isn't their choice of what subjects to frame inside their viewfinder a form of participation? Might snapping pictures of people in pain or imminent danger be an inhuman way to make a living?
Bestselling Spanish writer Arturo Perez-Reverte explores such complex ethical questions in his novel "The Painter of Battles," and his narrative draws extensively on his experiences as a journalist covering conflicts in the Middle East, Bosnia and elsewhere.
Perez-Reverte's protagonist is Andres Faulques, a world-weary war photographer who has retired to a 300-year-old tower on an isolated bluff on a small island off the Spanish coast. No longer able to find meaning and purpose through his camera lens, he spends his days painting a mural on his tower walls of the atrocities he has witnessed, as well as horrific images gleaned from the battle paintings he most admires. He's convinced that it is in our nature to oppress, humiliate and kill, and his goal is to create a monumental fresco of human existence as he sees it.
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