The photograph of the end of the civilization has been lying on my kitchen counter for nearly a week. I didn’t put it in the recycling with the rest of the newspapers; instead, I let it lie and looked at the photograph as I would pass. This photograph is on the cover of the Wednesday, December 27th, New York Times.
The Reuters photograph taken by Akintunde Akinleye is from the aftermath of the pipeline fire in Lagos, Nigeria. Billows of black smoke have filled the sky and the landscape has been charred. Buildings still partially stand among burned poles. Sheets of tin lie in a heap. Amid all of this there is one man, who holds a bucket. The caption for the photograph tells us that the man has washed the soot from his face, but his gesture, holding his hand over his eyes, is ambiguous and rather than an act to restore his sense of well-being, it could as easily be a sign of exasperation, of finality. The arms of the man, one extended and the other bent to his forehead echo the only other living thing in the photograph, a small, thin tree, with one of its two main branches bent like an elbow that sends its upper branches laterally, but all of the tree’s upper branches merge into the black sky.
As I looked at the photograph the past few days, I thought about science fiction for its portrayal of apocalypse and, of course, for the sake of fictional development, the few survivors who leave Earth or are left to face survival on Earth. Science fiction has its roots in the real world and its branches extend toward the brightest lights of imagination, but its trunk is made of our fears. The apocalyptic narrative of some science fiction seems to me concatenated in this photograph from the pipeline fire.
I don’t have an apocalyptic vision, but this photograph has the evocative power to push one’s senses well beyond the effects of a single catastrophe. It’s the isolation of an individual, left with disheveled tin, representing the metal so important to what we have regarded as the development of civilization, among the burned remains and the blackness of the containing sky. It’s the limitation of natural resources—a world where poverty and population pressures have pushed housing to cover the landscape, where nothing is left but a scrawny tree with branches as black as the sky. It’s difficult to look at this photograph without thinking that it stands for our ruin, the overwhelming of place and people, ecologically limited, tipped by catastrophe to an end.
It is emblematic, again beyond the horrible situation of the pipeline fire, that the photograph of the end of the civilization is set in Africa, a place where population density, poverty, and disease shadow every possible opportunity. I wonder whether Africa is the model for the end.
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[After writing this bleak-sounding post on New Year's day, I should perhaps resolve to write only happy posts for the next week.]