PHOTOJOURNALISTS TOOK HUNDREDS of images of the turmoil that shook Charlottesville last week. Those caught up in the protests snapped thousands more. Yet these two, taken just days apart, best expresses the range of emotions much of the nation felt.
At first glance, the photos are remarkably similar—a large crowd gathered around a monument, the scene illuminated by firelight. Yet one conveys hatred and instills fear. The other projects defiance even as it expresses hope. The inherent symbolism of each image draws subconsciously from history and human instinct to express something powerful, even primal.
“It’s taking ideas that are hard to communicate and reducing them to simple things that evoke emotions very quickly,” says David Uttal, a psychologist and professor at Northwestern University. “And they evoke emotions so quickly that it’s almost too late to start explaining things when people have been pushed in one direction or another.”
The photo of the white supremacists shows a charged crowd of men who look angry and not at all welcoming. You can’t see their faces, but seeing them would almost certainly accentuate the aggressive, frenetic feel of the image. The photo of the vigil, on the other hand, depicts people of all backgrounds, each of them peaceful, even calm. It conveys safety and inclusiveness.
Fire is the common theme uniting the photos. In Shay Horse’s photo, white supremacists gathered around a statue of Thomas Jefferson hoist torches high overhead. It feels exclusionary, and one cannot help but feel trepidation. Fire has a long association with white supremacy. The Ku Klux Klan carried torches and set crosses alight to terrorize African-Americans, some of whom were burned to death. The Nazis hoisted torches at rallies and purges, setting fire to books and synagogues.
“That’s why this picture is so powerful, because there’s an instantaneous connection based on our popular understanding of what racial violence looks like,” says Justene Hill, a historian of African American history at the University of Virginia. “It hearkens back to a period of more visible racial violence against African American people.”
But fire is just as often used to express sorrow, solidarity, and defiance—three things that come across in Salwan George’s photo of a vigil at the University of Virginia. Seeing those faces by candlelight makes you feel welcome, but also somber. Candles convey warmth and hope, and are often lit to offer prayers or mourn the dead. “It means peace,” says Maurice Jackson, a historian of African American history at Georgetown University. “It means love.”
Much has been said and written about the events of the past week. Yet these two photographs speak to the two sides of the cultural rift that opened last week. One side espouses hatred, the other, love. It really is that simple.