Against a gray expanse of pavement, a man in a neon orange jersey sprawls on his back, his gray hair wild from the force of the explosion that has knocked him to the ground. His gaze is turned toward three police officers in yellow vests who have unholstered their guns and walkie-talkies and who sprint through smoke and haze.
By now you have seen this photograph a dozen times, one of hundreds of visual artifacts for a tragedy that played out in a horrifyingly visual manner – on screens, through footage, in pictures. The Boston Globe posted it last Monday afternoon, and by that evening it had been retweeted 2,300 times.
The runner was identified: Bill Iffrig, 78, a grandfather and retired mason from Lake Stevens, Wash., who later told CNN how the shock waves had made his legs jitter.
His identity almost didn’t matter. He was simply the Fallen Runner.
A week after the Boston Marathon bombing, we are composing the first draft of history. We curate the images that will come to represent this week: A pair of grainy stills from a department store surveillance camera. Newsreel of police officers, swarming a Boston suburb in the middle of the night. Newsreel of police officers, cheered by the city. Endless online galleries prefaced with, Warning: Graphic.
Chaos is organized into pixels, frenzy is made still and two-dimensional. We catalogue and remember.
The Sept. 11 office worker, coated from head to toe in a blanket of yellow dust. The Oklahoma City firefighter, cradling the unmoving body of a child amid the rubble of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Napalm girl. Afghan girl. The monk seated in peace, burning alive. The ordinary people we know by face rather than by name, and who we remember only because the world went pear-shaped, and they happened to be caught on film.
The day after the marathon, the photograph of Iffrig appeared, large and high-definition, on the front page of dozens of newspapers around the country: the Chicago Tribune, the Arizona Republic, the Orlando Sentinel, The Washington Post.
By Wednesday it had gone international. In Germany and Belgium, Iffrig lay on the pavement under headlines in foreign languages. Sports Illustrated announced that the picture would become its cover for the week of April 23.
It’s the simplicity, says Sarah Leen, a senior photo editor at National Geographic Magazine, when asked about the Iffrig photograph. It’s full of symbols that represent the event.
The colors, lighting and mood all interact as if they had been organized, rather than desperately captured by Boston Globe photographer John Tlumacki, who himself felt the force of the blast.
The Iffrig photograph, Tlumacki says in a telephone interview, conveys the sounds and the smells – the firecracker smell – that were present at the finish line that day. It’s the photograph he took that he feels represents what it was like to be there.
In anniversary remembrances, we are likely to return not to images of alleged bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, but rather to the victims and heroes: to the man in the cowboy hat, running alongside the man whose legs had been blown off. To exhausted marathoners-turned-EMTs. To that initial moment when the earth was displaced and the ground shook underfoot.
Historically, the photographs we tend to remember are not the ones that capture the whole of a tragedy – a broad battlefield – but the ones that depict the personal effects of one: a naked girl running down a dirt road, her skin burned from a South Vietnamese napalm attack. The ones that evoke the emotions of a specific time.
Human beings are empathetic creatures. We deal most effectively one to one, says Ann Shumard, the curator of photographs for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. It’s hard to respond to a mass of people.
A single image of a single person can be tremendously evocative and distill the essence of a tragedy, Shumard says. To focus on just one person in the midst of all this swirling chaos – I think that’s probably the first step to coming to terms with what has happened.