What’s in a face

  • This image was reproduced across various media in the UK during the past week. I think there’s an anima/soul angle to this, I’ll give it a go…

First, to explain. A British man in his late 50s was reported to have “disappeared” (ie he was offline and had not turned up somewhere as scheduled) in a remote region of Papua New Guinea. This file picture of him from an earlier time, with people he once visited in the Amazon basin, was dragged up to illustrate. He’s the anxious-looking dude.

Incidentally, it was rather sad to see the local news media’s desperate invoking of that great British trope of the bold “explorer” pioneering contact with untamed peoples in barely known quarters of the globe. You sensed the word “savage” lurking between the lines. As if we hadn’t long since learned that Papua’s highlands, despite being difficult to access, are home to plenty of people leading perfectly ordinary and successful lives (albeit free of a lot of the paraphernalia the rest of us can barely manage without) in settled communities. But that’s by-the-by.

The point for me was that juxtaposition of the two faces, and their expressions. One easy and composed, the face of a person at home in their skin, in their environment, in their life. The other disturbed and out of balance, not just for the moment, you sense, but for a lifetime. That’s the face I see all around me, in the streets and cafes, in meeting rooms and on the train. It’s the face I see in any unguarded photo of myself (the face that’s never there in the mirror, and wouldn’t be there in a selfie). The face of a person born wild but raised domestic, with years of ingrained dissonance and dislocation worn into its spreading lines.

Once I read an interview with an elderly Nepali, a Sherpa who had accompanied mountaineering expeditions in the Himalaya in the early days, before it became mass tourism. The people in his village had never had to scale the rocky peaks before, never thought it necessary, and they wondered what drove these prosperous visitors, with their vast trains of baggage, to come so far then hurry up and down the mountains. We admired their energy, he said, but we felt sorry for them too, their restlessness.

The doughty explorer has since turned up at an airstrip, by the way, is feeling a little unwell, and has been retrieved by helicopter.

2 Replies to “What’s in a face”

  1. Chris,
    Wonderful insights into that photo. Your story reminds me of an experience I had driving from Arizona to Colorado. I drove into Monument Valley from the south using back roads as I was enjoying the freedom of simply driving. One road dropped down into the valley floor and the view really struck me. Thinking about the amount of erosion is took to carve out the valley I was awestruck. I must have driven for an hour or more steeped in this amazing valley when I came across the sign telling me “Monument Valley” viewing area ahead. I took the turn and pulled up along with a few half dozen other vehicles to “see” Monument Valley. It was of course the characteristic view of the valley we often see in pictures, but to my mind, fully steeped in awe, it did nothing particularly more for me.
    But I did see something quite interesting. A family pulled up in their mini-van and parents piled out snapping pictures, imploring their children to come see. The young children enjoyed running about free from confinement if only for a minute. The teenagers, looked bored and said “Ok, big deal!” and went back to listening to music. And within a few minutes they all pilled back into the van and sped off for presumably the next “natural wonder”.
    As I stood there alone with my thoughts I realized how little tourists really see of a landscape. In their hurry to press on, to give their children these experiences, to capture family vacations in photos…they missed actually experiencing Monument Valley.
    I too felt what the Sherpa expressed, that people are restless, in too much of a hurry to enjoy where they are at.
    thanks for sharing,

  2. That is a fully haunting photograph exactly for the reasons you describe so incisively. Such softness in one set of eyes and such desperation in the other.
    It encapsulates so much: quite possibly an alternative history of the world is there in that single photograph.

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