This Picture Speaks Of A Haunting Truth

Posted on April 30, 2013 in Culture-Vulture

By Jit Banerjee:


The personal and the universal have always been in conflict within me. I have seen sacrifice from very close quarters and have tried to understand it. This photograph stands for the ultimate sacrifice of the body for a larger cause. What strikes the eye the most is the poise and control with which the monk is sitting on the road. The immense amount of will power and spiritual strength that has to be mustered to commit an act of self immolation is unfathomable to me. Staring at this picture is like looking into a well at the bottom of which lies the ultimate meaning of our being but the well is so deep that I cannot see the bottom at all.

At the first look what attracts me to the photograph is the context. In fact, one of the reasons the photograph caught my special attention was because of the cab that is seen standing behind the burning monk. The same cabs ply in my hometown Calcutta and I was instantly drawn to the photograph thinking that the incident took place in my city. The context however, turned out to be very different and far more interesting than I had imagined. The monk in the picture immolated himself in Vietnam in protest of the suppression of Buddhism by the Christian ruling class. This method of protest that the monk adopted was therefore, not only very strong but also true to the beliefs of his faith for which he was protesting. There have been conspiracy theories surrounding this incident and U.S. diplomats have opined that the American television networks paid the monk to burn himself in order to direct criticism at the Kennedy government which was at this time an ally of the government in Vietnam. I understand that I have no evidence of logical proof to provide in order to refute these claims, but somehow looking at this photograph convinces me that an act of this nature could only have been committed with the most genuine of motives in mind. It is as if this photograph has become an assurance to me that there are some things in the world that money can’t buy.

This photograph, not surprisingly, won the Pulitzer Prize for the person responsible for it, a press photographer called Browne. The way it has been framed is perhaps a chief reason for its critical acclaim. The raging flame that has engulfed the monk from all sides is at the center of the frame, like a vicious monster. The monk sits calmly in the lotus position towards a side, his body blackened due to severe burns. The photograph has a substantial amount of depth by virtue of the angle from which the monk has been clicked. The public nature of this sacrifice is expressed by the crowds that are seen towards the top of the frame. The fact that there is a larger, all encompassing reason behind this act is more than clear in the picture.

Since this incident self-immolation has become the ultimate form of protest for Buddhists around the world. In the contemporary context, Tibetan youths have been burning themselves in the streets in protest of the Chinese presence in their country. About four months back the latest case of self-immolation took place in New Delhi. The young man lived a few kilometers away from my college campus in a Tibetan refugee colony. Some of my friends knew him. I cannot express in words the extent to which this last incident has magnified the relevance of this photograph to my life.