The picture was on Twitter. What caught my eye wasn’t the small coffin or the drawn faces of the parents or the crucifix of yellow roses arranged on the gleaming wooden lid. It was the two toy sports cars, still in their boxes, placed carefully on top of the flowers to accompany the body of a four-year-old boy down into the earth.
As a journalist you’re trained to notice and describe the small details. Show, don’t tell, goes the writer’s adage, and you have to set the scene. A relative or interview subject is not sad, no; they’re sobbing, their voice cracks, tears well up in their eyes.
Sometimes you focus on objects because those are the only images you’re able to convey.
A few days before human violence took the life of Taegrin Morris, nearly 300 people died in an airplane over Ukraine. Journalist Noah Sneider tweeted from the scene that it was an “absolute disaster”: “Bodies everywhere, organs splayed out. Too gruesome to post photographs.” The following morning he tweeted that the ground was “littered [with] human skeletons and plane fragments”.
Last Saturday, he posted a picture of a porcelain dinner plate snapped in two, “Malaysia Airlines” stamped on the back.
In the days following the crash, I saw these photographs everywhere, online and in print. A red carry-on suitcase, lying broken open on its side. An “I ❤ Amsterdam” T-shirt. A laptop with a shattered screen. A Lonely Planet guide to Bali and Lombok. A Dutch magazine for pre-teen girls next to a bright pink backpack. A wristwatch. Several teddy bears.
Instead of seeing mangled bodies, we see the artefacts of the dead. I try to decide what it is about the sight of these possessions that make me feel as if someone socked me in the gut. They feed our desire for information, certainly. The morbid curiosity. When we cannot stomach the images of bone and burnt flesh, we can still bear a photo of a child’s backpack.
But perhaps it is also because these tangible things connect the dead to the living. A body is indisputably a body; it is removed in a very real way from the person that was. Instead, it is the possessions that tell us something about their owners. We are able to imagine someone reading that guidebook, finishing a project on that laptop, falling asleep holding that teddy bear.
We imagine ourselves, and the debris that would have been strewn on the ground had that been our final flight.
Lena Khalaf Tuffaha uses this effect in her poem “Running Orders”, in which the narrator describes receiving a bomb warning in Gaza:
It doesn’t matter
that 58 seconds isn’t long enough
to find your wedding album
or your son’s favourite blanket
or your daughter’s almost completed
or your shoes
When the chasm of personal experience becomes too great, the ordinary objects in the photographs we so feverishly click through become our connection to the people who are not us.
They tie us to a four-year-old boy who loved to play with cars.