Sunday, December 03, 2006

Imagine All the People

Let us try an exercise I learned when I was a Biblical Revisionary poet. Let us choose one moment, hold it in our hands, turn it around and see what we can learn. Let's talk about this moment here.

I see a man photographing five women. I don't know specifics about the rules of dress and male-female associations, so I don't know if the man has to know these women or if he must be related to them. He could be a passerby. Maybe the women are related to one another but maybe not. I don't know if there are rules about friendship between women. He is taking their picture, so what I see is a special occasion. The women are standing under a structure but they are still outdoors.

The color contrasts interest me. He is wearing white. The women are wearing black. His outfit suggests that he has recently been to prayer. The women have purses and little odds and ends, so they are not at home. This is public attire. The people walking around in the background are dressed very casually. One detail I can't make out: if one of those two children is a girl, that would be interesting, too.

As a thoroughly Western woman looking at this picture, I had to struggle with my feelings about the burkas. I felt threatened by the idea of garments intended to conceal my female form, and I'm not going to get over that and everything that goes with it. In the context of the exercise, however, how fully-formed Me would feel if suddenly thrust into an all-veiled-all-the-time scenario is entirely useless. I had to put my feeling about Me aside. See? This is a lot like acting class, in that you have to consider the hopes and dreams of your character, the hurts and bumps along the way, the driving motivation, before you yell, "Stop thief!" The women in this image may or may not have grown up with these garments as part of their culture or they may have adopted the garments willingly. Some people do. Some women live in places where these garments have suddenly become necessary for survival. I can't surmise what their story might be culturally - unless that kid in the background is a girl. One important consideration: the person who took the photograph of the scene we see thought it was either interesting or unusual enough to snap.

Heavy fabric aside, I see five women who are shaped differently from one another. If they were photographed separately, I might not notice distinctions. The woman on the far right stands separate from the group. Her posture is mature. The way her bag rests on her arm is the way a woman who has spent much time holding infants carries something efficiently. She considers how she is seen. If this group is a family, I think this woman is Mom, and Mom orchestrates everything. I also believe that whatever relationship the man has to the women funnels through Mom, so he may be Dad.

I sense that the woman immediately to her left is her mother. Grandma was in charge but now stands eclipsed by the force of her daughter's personality. Even so, Grandma is no pushover. She doesn't speak often but when she does, her judgment is sharp and unforgiving.

Moving to the far left, this is the baby of the family. She feels pinched often but she believes that if she is a good girl everything will turn out fine. She is hopeful but not realistic.

The woman second from left is probably the second daughter, probably a bit of a bully and has a temper. She has a tender heart and loves children. She is not kind to strangers.

The woman in the center is the overly emotional oldest daughter. She is our princess or she may have health problems, possibly both. She is aware that she is pretty.

I can't verify any of this, of course, and I could be completely wrong. The thing that is most striking to the Western eye at first is the sameness of the figures: the women are wearing apparently identical, identity-concealing clothes. That is the joke element of this internet-circulated jpeg titled Pointless Family Photo of the Year. Go ahead, right click on the image and see that for yourself. That's how it came to me. What the joke overlooks is that these women are individuals; the act of photographing them at this occasion in this dress assumes that the viewer of the picture that man is taking will be able to tell them apart. Kind of reminds you of picking out your friends in high school marching band, oui? And not that far a cry from putting men in weirdly shaped business suits, either.

But I'm looking at a picture of a man taking a picture of women - unless my eyes deceive me. What do you see?


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