Considering college students’ obsession with posting pictures on Facebook, it might be hard to imagine a world in which some photographs are hidden from sight and never allowed to see the light of day.
But this is the world described in “The Falling Man,” a play written by GW alumnus Matthew Johnson and presented by the department of theatre and dance Friday night in Dorothy Betts Theater.
“The Falling Man,” inspired by a photograph of the same name, explores the impact Sept. 11 had on the nation’s collective memory. In the controversial photo, a man is shown falling to his death from the World Trade Center, but the photo is virtually erased from the public’s memory of Sept. 11 because it is deemed too painful and disturbing.
“I came to the photo before I came to the play,” Johnson said. “The play came out of the photo.”
The play depicts how one man’s fall to death creates a bond between himself and the photographer who captured it, a connection the photographer does not want to acknowledge or even remember.
Alan Wade, the play’s director and interim chair at the department, offered his thoughts on the play.
“Even though Edie, the central character of the play, is not a journalist, she considers herself a photographic artist,” Wade said. “She goes from seeing what she does as a photographer as being a magician of sorts – a killer of souls – and she’s euphoric about this possibility for what she does . Then she goes on in her next monologue to . (say) sometimes photos lie, but they lie in the service of truth.”
He added, “She’s beginning now to question her own position as a photographer.”
The play raises some questions about the ethics of photojournalism, which local journalists discussed after the play. Washington Post photojournalist Gerald Martineau and The Hatchet’s assistant photo editor Ryder Haske joined Johnson and Wade to discuss personal experiences with the ethics of photojournalism.
Martineau, who has worked as a photojournalist for more than 40 years, said it is not a photographer’s job to interfere with the subject of the photograph.
“A rule of thumb is to get as close as I can to the action, to the subject, without becoming part of what I’m photographing” Martineau said. “Yeah, I’ve been troubled by some of the things I have photographed for The Washington Post . but often I think, What would be worse, not to take the picture at all and ignore what happened, forget about it?'”
Martineau stressed that understanding the balance between photographer and conscientious human requires context, or as he put it, “situational awareness.”
“It all depends on the existing situation,” said Martineau, describing an experience in which he witnessed a car accident. “Thank God it was rush hour. Everybody came to the assistance of that lady, and I’m taking pictures this whole time . That was my job at the time.”