Girl gasping for air, every ounce of her remaining strength deployed in the battle to keep breathing for a few seconds more.
Filmed during a chemical attack on the Syrian village of Khan Sheikhoun; other children in the back of the same truck were already dead – she couldn’t have lasted long.
A grotesque moment, but you weren’t wrong to look. In a different epoch, only looking (and not doing) might have been veering close to voyeurism; but now it seems right enough just to ‘bear witness’, as the journalist said who broke the story.
Not that you’re first with the news, as she was; but there’s more than one job for journalism to do. Another role, no less important than the primary task, is to compose subsequent versions of specific events so that they may rise to the level of our common culture – the place where otherwise isolated occurrences involving disparate people, come to belong to all of us, and us to them.
Not much for you to do on this occasion, however. The half-formed faces of these children are wide-open to the future; and yet we know it is already closed to them. It is written here already, both the resilience and the frailty of human life. The contradiction which characterises us all, presents itself spontaneously in these bodies which are both flawless and lifeless; whereas careful composition – a new rhetoric – is required to draw this much commonality from the gnarled particulars of most adults, who generally appear as fixed and closed as the number of years they have put away.
The dead children of Khan Sheikhoun are modelling what they have not done and what now they never will. In this tragic instance, there is nothing more for your new rhetoric to do – except to hope that such instances are few and far between.