The Tank Man and Ieshia

You know those essays that you had to write on different books in high school? Or if you studied literature or poetry at Uni? Or music theory? Or art theory? Sometimes it can be tiring to break down art and into its smallest parts and analyse the different layers. There’s a danger that it can leave the book / play / artwork / poem / song lyric / photograph as something dry that no longer feels the same as before.

I wanted to look at why I felt certain reactions towards certain photos, but I didn’t want the above to happen. So I’m going to steer clear of going too technical, instead looking at the very first fleeting emotional response I had when looking at the photo.

Many photographs have been born out of the current racial tension in America, showing the widespread violence and fear, but for some reason this photo below is the one that people are talking about, and are using words like “iconic” to describe.

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The photograph, by Reuters photojournalist Jonathan Bachman, shows a young woman facing down police officers in riot gear who are trying to quell protestors in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The woman, later arrested and identified as nurse Ieshia Evans, stands resolutely in the face of opposition.

The photo has become so popular, and so symbolic of the current climate in the US, that people are comparing it to Jeff Widener’s photograph Tank Man, of a man standing before a convoy of tanks during the protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, 1989. Which is remarkable, because even if the name is unfamiliar, a lot of people can at least recall the image of Tank Man, it is so pervasive in our cultural recollection.

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Why did the photo of Ieshia and the riot police evoke such a strong reaction for people? In a time where we are bombarded by images 24 hours a day, for a photograph to quickly gain as much attention as it has is a huge feat and speaks to the fact that photographs are still a powerful means of shaping and framing our humanity and experience. Blogs have been written about the photograph, dissecting every aspect of it.

For me, my first reaction to the photo was that I was immediately drawn to the young woman. People will speak of the contrast between the heavily suited and armed police officers and the almost bare woman, but if we’re to look at her she is an incredible anchor point in the photo. She is resolute, immobile. Her back is ramrod straight, her fists are clenched. And yet she’s wearing a flowing summer dress, that is blowing gently and moving about her as she’s completely still. She’s not holding a weapon. Her face is serene almost, resolved.

In the face of that power, that contradiction, it almost looks like the police confronting her have been rocked back on their heels. They almost look as though they are put off-balance by some invisible forcefield around her. They are heavily covered head to toe in black. They are the ones who are shielded, protected, and yet they are almost cowering.

The photo is bare and doesn’t look edited. You can practically feel how hot and oppressive the air is, the light, very small breeze blowing her dress but not offering relief to the scene. Those were the things that stood out for me. It’s those tensions between elements in the scene that tell us so much about the tensions of what the photograph is about.

Is it iconic? Yes, I think so. Will it be talked about an recognised like Widener’s Tank Man? I’m not sure. Like I said, we don’t consume photographs in the same way that we used to. However we won’t know until it’s decades down the track and we are looking back on the current political climate in the US. But I think people will use Bachman’s photo of Ieshia and the soldiers as one representation and visual aid to help discuss our human experience.

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