December 7, 2012 6:07 pm

The power and the gory

What draws so many to pick through last year’s crop of cruelty and catastrophe?
A mother and her wounded son during the Arab Spring in Yemen©Samuel Aranda

As a reporter in the Middle East in 1998, I was deeply impressed by a photograph I saw on a newspaper front page. It was just after the Nairobi embassy bombings and, instead of depicting the gory and grim realities of high explosives, it focused on a group of relatives of local victims.

I’ve tried since to track down the photo, without success. All I remember was that the photographer had snapped the group as its members simply looked at one another. Luck and judgment had given the shot an almost baroque composition. It projected stillness, expectancy and deep pathos.

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The luck of the photographer in unlucky parts of the world was much on my mind this week, visiting the 2012 World Press Photo display, currently in Barcelona. The itinerant show has caused a particular stir here because the winning shot was taken by a Barcelonan, Samuel Aranda. Placed at the entrance, his enlarged image, above right, of a mother and her wounded son during the Arab Spring in Yemen is of sufficient power to stop most visitors in their tracks.

Going round the other entries with the Friday-night crowds, I tried to discern what it is exactly that draws me and so many others to pick through last year’s crop of cruelty and catastrophe.

Even in our hyperconnected world, simply seeing pictures of foreign places still seems a big draw. Inevitably, ghoulishness plays a role too, grisly scenes of dismemberment in Mexico exerting a gallows pull on gallery-goers. The desolate landscapes of post-tsunami Japan also feed a deep fascination with the planet’s spectacular indifference to human feelings.

Aranda’s winning image is not really any of the above, being, simply, the pietà of our times. It depicts a young Yemeni man, injured during the demonstrations against the Saleh regime, pulled to his mother’s breast. His pale, sinewy nakedness forms a powerful contrast with her dark, all-covering burka.

As with the photo of the Nairobi bombings, its impact rests on an instant of classical beauty snatched out of the speed and chaos of the modern world. Its flesh tones are like a Caravaggio. We admire the mix of skill and serendipity that has whisked Aranda to rightful fame, all the time sensing an undertow to our appreciation: that to become art, the two people it depicts have had to experience the opposite of serendipity.

. . .

It will hardly be a surprise to publishers or film studios that horror and leisure go together, although it doesn’t stop being weird that we fill our weekends with the anguish of others, fictional or otherwise. It certainly didn’t stop me going to watch Fin (The End), just released here in Spain.

Fin is a stylish piece of Spanish gothic about a group of friends spending a weekend together in the kind of amazing mountain house only film location scouts know about. On the first night, cracks appear in the camaraderie. The weekend is further soured when eco-apocalypse suddenly engulfs the world.

The weekend, of course, is not just when we consume this kind of anxiety-inducing stuff but is often an essential component of the horror/ fantasy plot itself. A weekend isolates characters from the banality of their weeks – essential if we are to be sufficiently credulous about a plot’s often dodgy metaphysics.

Much as we take it for granted, the emergence of a Saturday-Sunday leisure block where we are free to freak ourselves out, has clearly not been around for ever. A recent episode of Thinking Allowed, Laurie Taylor’s excellent social-science programme on BBC Radio 4, dated it to the 1840s, when middle- and working-class Mancunians argued for a half-day off work on Saturday.

The notion of a cultural/leisure window between work and church made some patrician employers fret: leisure, after all, had been the birthright of the “leisured” classes. But the workers eventually won, creating the weekend as we know it.

This could be changing, though. As Taylor and his guests pointed out, our service economy means many employees, especially the poorer paid, are increasingly taking their two days off during the week – hardly a fair substitute, as the value of the fixed weekend lies in being able to enjoy it with others.

As anyone who has lived in violent areas of the world knows, curfews, fear and repression eventually maim that collective spirit of watching and listening to things together. For those of us who live in more stable places, this shared block of free time is still the framework on which much of our culture rests. It’s precious – so the best way to appreciate it is probably just to get on with it.

Have a good weekend.

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