Photographer Russ Dillingham originally didn’t intend to publish the kiss photo. I encouraged him to do so and I regret nothing.
The photo, of a handcuffed lass kissing a bearded man while a pair of police officers patiently wait, is a perfect snapshot of hardscrabble life in downtown Lewiston.
She’s a woman in love who can’t escape a troubled past. He’s her young paramour, promising to wait for her no matter how many turns of the moon it takes. He will remain faithful, he vows, and count the days until she is free again. Somewhere off in the distance, a violin sings a sweet, sad song as the lovestruck lady in chains is carted off proud and strong to the hoosegow.
Or so I imagine it, which is the power of this photo and others like it — all you get is that one image, my friends. What you make of it depends on where you let your imagination take you.
Amy Winehouse would have loved this photo, I’m sure of it. She would have dashed off a gritty tune about dingy love on dusty streets. Charles Bukowski, who surely snatched a few kisses himself while wearing the irons, would have penned a lurid poem or a vivid short story about romance in the hood.
Like all good photos, this one hints at a bigger story.
“It’s the Lewiston equivalent of a Norman Rockwell painting,” quipped a local fellow when the photo appeared on Facebook.
How right he is. It IS like a Rockwell painting, only instead of a rose-cheeked lass at the piano or freckle-faced boy nursing a root beer, Russ has captured an image of embattled love on Lewiston’s mean streets. Frankly, I would have headlined this one “Sweet Surrender,” myself, but who am I to question Dillingham’s seasoned wisdom? The man has an eye for drama be it big and glossy or shabby and down in the dirt. One frame, that’s all he needs to tell you a story and lord, how I’ve hated him for it now and again.
The “Sweet Surrender” image (I’m just going to go ahead and call it that) is just a moment in time that Russ captured while he was on his way back from one assignment and on his way to another. It isn’t the migrant mother in the Great Depression or Phan Thi Kim Phuc running naked from her burning village. It’s not Neil Armstrong on the moon or Muhammad Ali standing over his fallen foe, either.
Russ’ kissing convict photo probably won’t make Time Magazine, but it does achieve something that those other, more-famous photos did. It deftly captures the mood of a moment and hints at the larger zeitgeist that exists beyond the reach of the camera lens.
Men and women are captured, cuffed and carted off to jail every day in Lewiston as a matter of banal routine. Wives are taken away from husbands, men are hauled from the beds of lovers, mothers are removed from their children in order to pay the piper for previous wrongs.
Most of us know of those things only from what we see in the bland, generic scribblings in the daily police log. Russ has provided us with a small yet poignant glimpse behind the curtain and we can take from that glimpse whatever we choose to.
And yet, not everyone is as impressed by the photo as Winehouse, Bukowski and I.
“Who gives a s**t!” roared one woman, as much as one can roar in a Facebook thread.
“Waste of time,” declared another.
“Please tell me why is this news,” a third woman asked. “I literally have no idea what’s going on in this photo and nor do I care.”
A few made the obligatory “slow news day” comments while one woman deemed the photograph voyeuristic and exploitative. Several readers used the opportunity to rant how this was just another sign that Lewiston has become the new Gomorrah while many, unable to expand their imaginations any further, parroted the “slow news day” bit, adding lines of frowning emoticons to make it their own.
Comments such as these make me heave weary sighs, and I’m not a man who likes to sigh.
I understand complaints about the news these days far better than most in my position. You’ll seldom find a reporter who complains as much as I do about the state of big media. But nearly 300 querulous gripes about a slice-of-life pic snapped by a photographer who has been sniffing out news for roughly a hundred years? From the raging timbre of the comments, you’d think Russ had presented them with a ghastly image of a puppy slaughter or unicorn dismemberment.
A few readers railed about how this one photo alone represents the decline of integrity and quality of journalism as a whole, clearly missing the fact that the oldest publications in the world used vignettes to tell stories. Before there were cameras, there were sketches, and you can bet that every time some adulterer or thief was sentenced to the pillory, some dude with a piece of charcoal was there to draw it. Before there was paper on which to write, hairy men scratched on cave walls to illustrate things in the world around them.
I really liked Russ’ “Sweet Surrender” photo, and it was a relief to discover I’m not the only one. Among the complaints and criticisms on Facebook were a handful of imaginative people who appreciated the image in a variety of ways. One wit suggested the image was a scene from the worst ever episode of “Orange is the New Black.” Another hilariously applied lyrics from Biz Marki’s “Just a Friend,” which left me singing that horrible song the rest of the day. A few tried their hands at writing their own headlines for the photo, although none were as good as “Sweet Surrender,” if you ask me.
And then there’s the fellow who made the Norman Rockwell comment and thank God for that guy. That dude gets it. Art is in the eye of the beholder and these days, the beholders can be a grouchy bunch. Tomorrow, when Russ presents a photo of a sweet, gap-toothed youngster eating an ice cream cone on a swing set, they’ll complain about that, too, and with a passion.
“Boy,” they will grouse. “A kid eating ice cream? Must be a slow news day.”
And they’ll put long lines of red-faced emoticons out there, too, so you know it’s an original thought.