Monday, September 25, 2006


DO you ever look up at the sky and tell yourself, “It’s a good day to die?”

I like to walk. Before stepping out, I check the dome outside. If it’s too bright to gaze at directly, I adjust the stride to a saunter, and scan my inner map for tree-shaded lanes.

If I spy a tinge of lavender or a faraway grey spreading like ink in water, I sniff the air and take a bet: rain’s still 15 minutes away.

To answer my question then: no, I’ve never gazed up at the sky and thought of dying. I can believe that Someone may be gazing down at my exposed head, but I can’t imagine Him wanting to blow it away.

So the Aug. 21, 2006 Time cover was a revelation. Capturing the uncertainties left behind by a foiled terror plot to explode transatlantic planes, it shows one such passenger airplane nosing down to Heathrow airport on Aug. 10, the day of the lock-out.

Photographer Philip Hollis captures the toy-like figure of the plane nearly perching on the blurred snarl of barbed wire and slanting metal incisors surrounding the airport’s perimeter.

Risk threatens not just air travel but all life. We exist and then we don’t. This seems to be the bitter fruit that drops, like a curse, from the Hollis’ photo.

In today’s image-driven world, photojournalists are the new seers, able to read the future from the visceral and raw.

The sky, once the object of daydreams, now holds the hate-talk, as captured in Time’s “75 years,” photojournalism documenting 1923 till 1998.

Against a bleached sky, the Eiffel Tower is silhouetted, a swastika waving from the top. In this July 8, 1940 photograph, a victorious Adolf Hitler strides in front of a line of German art historians and architectural experts that inventoried everything, from the Opera to the Louvre, spoils of a France the Nazis successfully invaded.

Facing this photo, on the opposite page, is one taken on Oct. 16, 1939. A few minutes after German planes bombed a Polish farmhouse, seven women went back to the fields, hoping to scratch for potatoes. According to the unidentified photojournalist, the planes doubled back and, flying as low as 20 feet, opened fire.

The photograph preserves the moment a girl of 10 or 11 kneels beside her sister, one of those killed in the strafing. The young woman’s eyes are closed, shutting out the sky that betrayed her.

The director Francis Ford Coppola said, when he was interviewed for the Aug.21, 2006 issue of Time, that his Vietnam epic “Apocalypse Now” was an examination of an idea that ”society could send people in to kill on behalf of some moral ideal.”

The smoke blackening out the Pearl Harbor horizon, the desolation shrouding Hiroshima after the bombing, and the ant lines of people crawling against the skyline of Saigon to escape the Viet Cong— these iconic images of war hostage us to the idea that the sky holds enough emptiness to mean eternity, another word for oblivion.

Long after Sartre equated our existence with nothingness, the great Johnny Cash sang in “Hurt”: “Everyone I know goes away in the end.”

Recently, I stopped walking to watch a plane approach the Mactan runway. As the aircraft slid endlessly above, I thought of imprisoned Filipina domestics jumping out of fifth-floor apartments during the bombing of Lebanon, and New Yorkers jumping to escape the gutted World Trade towers.

Did they read in the sky that it was a good day to die? The ones who lived said: no, they just wanted to go home.

Death has a sting, which, by no means, is the most dreaded. “And when it’s all over/ I hope we will go together/ I don’t want you to be alone, you know.” (Johnny Cash, “I Love You Tonight”)

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