There’s a marvelous, disturbing moment in Archibald MacLeish’s play based on the book of Job, J.B, that has stayed with me since I first read it in high school. In scene four, a reporter snaps a photograph of J.B.’s wife Sarah in the very moment that she learns her children have been killed:
Second Messenger: I’m from the press. There’s been an accident …
First Messenger: Four kids in a car. They’re dead.
Two were yours. Your son. Your daughter…
He raises his camera over the girl’s shoulder.
Girl: in her own voice, screaming.
Don’t look! Cover your face!
Sarah: with scarcely the breath to say it
Mary … Jonathan …
The flash. J.B. throws his elbow up as if to ward off a blow. Sarah does not move…
J.B.: You bastards!
I’ll beat your god damned brains out …
He lunges after them blinded by the flash as they scatter.
I love the complexity of this scene: how the photographer is both messenger and witness. How photographing someone’s pain becomes a physical “blow.” How the photograph is the blinding focal point of the scene, not the deaths themselves.
Our society places such a value on the act of bearing witness. We rely on the press to report every calamity, every war. When I worked at Human Rights Watch, part of my job as researcher was to interview people about the harms that had happened to them. On the one hand, it is important for these harms to go noticed, to be marked, so that we can honor the victims, prevent them from happening again, bring about social change. But on the other, voyeurism into another’s pain alters that pain, often making it worse. Is the impulse to record and publicize tragedy humanizing or dehumanizing? The week we accepted Samantha Kimmey’s “The Exhibit,” there was a photograph of a disaster victim buried in ash on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. The photograph was almost beautiful in its composition. But what was it? Art? News? Entertainment?
Samantha’s story happened to land in the lap of an editor who is rather obsessed with the exact issues her story raises. I tell you this because sometimes a piece catches an editor’s eye because of a lucky confluence of interests. Samantha went far beyond catching my attention with a shared interest though. She took me somewhere new on a topic I’d already thought about a lot: what if the human pain in the photograph is manufactured? Is that art? Is human suffering inherently artistic? What is its value?
In “The Exhibit,” viewers shuffle through an art show of photographs of people “in various contortions of distress and panic and the posed onset of asphyxiation.” The focal point of this story is not so much the subjects of the photographs as their viewers. Indeed, Samantha gives us precious little information about the subjects. And the artist is completely absent. The observers are the ones dehumanized in Samantha’s story, however, because of the way Samantha so deftly plays with point of view. The viewer is, at first, a generalized group. “Some people.” “Many.” “They.” The characters do not have names. Moreover, instead of feeling empathy for the dying, the viewers are confused, blasé, put out, concerned with passing the test of understanding the “art.” They seem unable to feel or even to know how to feel. As readers, we wonder, are these characters desensitized to others’ pain? Or are they instead repulsed by a presentation that is inappropriate?
And then there is that absolutely brilliant line: “Each photograph was $350.” Human suffering is not only offered as art in “The Exhibit,” it is also merchandise. There is a price put on it, a market for it. I adore how this disturbing detail is stated so matter-of-factly in a simple, declarative sentence. Samantha does not belabor the point, and her restraint makes it all the more powerful.
In every flash we receive, I am looking for a shift. For movement, however subtle. Samantha’s story is a treat, because she gives us not one, but two inflection points. First is when she shifts her point of view from the generalized “some visitors” to “one woman.” This moment grabbed me deeply. I craved the specificity of a single person’s experience of the exhibit, and Samantha satisfied that desire.
The second shift, that I love even more, is when the child appears in the last few lines. Innocence arrives at the very end of this story that we thought was about loss of innocence. And Samantha does an excellent job of changing the diction as the child enters. She gives us “whoosh” and “merrily” and “scurrying.” Such jovial words now enter this exhibit of death. The child brings with him a different kind of soil: the dirty fingerprint of childhood and play. That “print” is more human—and far more revelatory—for the viewer than the $350 photographs. Even more important, that fingerprint humanizes the viewer. Finally, she is able to connect with something in the room; finally, she cares. “She stooped to look. She stared for a while.”
So many submissions have a wonderful opening, premise, and shift. But they fail to deliver an ending that resonates. This stunning, blinding flash of an ending offers so many new ways to look at the exhibit. Indeed, it prompted me to reread the piece immediately—to see the fresh light the fingerprint cast as a foil to the asphyxiation photographs. Samantha does what I love most about good flash: she restrains herself from explaining what her ending means. She leaves the interpretation up to us.