The photo that captured the incredible survival of the passengers of U.S. Airways Flight 1549, a shot of passengers standing on the wing in the middle of the Hudson River and sitting in an inflatable life raft, was taken by a guy named Janis Krums, who was on the ferry that was going to pick up the stranded passengers and snapped the pic with his iPhone. Within seconds, it was on Twitter, and within a matter of hours it had been viewed by almost a hundred thousand people (I reloaded the Flickr page several times, waiting about two seconds between clicks, and the number of views went up by 50 or 60 each time).
If you’ve been reading news about India or Pakistan, or the Middle East, Salman Rushdie being knighted by the Queen, you may have seen photos featuring a young Islamic man who has come to be known (at least in some circles) as “Islamic Rage Boy.” In almost every photo, this bearded man is clearly agitated, yelling into the camera, waving his fist in the air, etc. And it’s not until you look at a site like SnappedShot that you realize he shows up in picture after picture, about different events, always with the same expression.
Photo-journalists like nothing better than to have a photo of riots or protests, and whatever group Rage Boy belongs to seems happy to oblige. There’s a recent photo of him in a group of Islamic protesters during the recent worldwide “Day of Rage” against Salman Rushdie being honoured (since the author is still the subject of an Islamic fatwa, or death sentence, as a result of insults to the Prophet Mohammed contained in his book The Satanic Verses). Last fall, he was striking almost the exact same pose during protests over comments that Pope Benedict XVI made about the Prophet during a speech. There are also wire photos of what appears to be the same man protesting the publication of anti-Muslim cartoons in a Danish newspaper, and the use of the Prophet’s face on a playing card, and a visit by President Bush.
Rage Boy has become such a popular icon of Islamic fundamentalism that author Christopher Hitchens uses him as a metaphor in his latest column at Slate.com. In true Web icon style, he even has his own T-shirt. And blogger Mike Elgan of The Raw Feed compares Rage Boy to Everywhere Girl, a young woman named Jennifer Chandra, whose stock photo has become ubiquitous in online advertising, as chronicled by The Inquirer in Britain and several other outlets. Her blog is here.
(Note: Just so we’re clear, this is not meant as a judgment of any kind — positive or negative — about the validity or sincerity of any specific Islamic or Muslim protest, cause, or viewpoint. I just thought it was interesting. If anything, it’s a comment on the laziness of wire-service photographers and/or editors)
Having been a columnist in a former life — before I discovered the joys of having my faults pointed out to me within minutes by blog readers — I’m aware of how easy it is to get on a roll when writing about a particular topic, to the point where perhaps the rhetoric gets away from you and the facts take a back seat. Today’s object lesson: Frank Rich, a columnist with the New York Times, who wrote an op-ed piece for the paper (which unfortunately is now behind the TimeSelect pay wall) about a famous photo of a group of people watching the towers fall on September 11, 2001.
In the column, Rich wrote that the picture was “shocking” because it showed that right after the attacks, callous New Yorkers had already moved on. As he put it:
This is a country that likes to move on, and fast. The young people in Mr. Hoepker’s photo aren’t necessarily callous. They’re just American. In the five years since the attacks, the ability of Americans to dust themselves off and keep going explains both what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong on our path to the divided and dispirited state the nation finds itself in today.
Okay, so here’s one of my favourite things about the Internet in action: David Plotz wrote a critical piece for Slate magazine, saying Rich was jumping to conclusions about what the people in the photo were or were not thinking about the attacks. At the end of it, he asked anyone who was in the photo to write in and describe what was happening — and someone did. Walter Sipser wrote in and said that he and his girlfriend were in the shot, and that they (like everyone else that day) were in shock. And he adds:
A more honest conclusion might start by acknowledging just how easily a photograph can be manipulated, especially in the advancement of one’s own biases or in the service of one’s own career.
Well said. Too bad the truth had to barge in and interrupt that great flight of rhetorical fancy you had going there, Frank.