The iconic image…

Stephanie Sinclair's photograph of child brides in Yemen

This image took my breath away when I saw it last year at the ‘World Press Photo Exhibition, 2012’ at the Southbank Centre. It has become something of a ritual – a neat, beautiful and often distressing experience which captures the breadth of news and events which take place annually across the world. There are always several images though which demand more time and focus and which compel me to stay rooted to the spot; the iconic image, ‘which carries an obvious meaning, while at the same time hinting at another idea which is less obvious, but possibly more significant….An icon then is two things at once; it is simultaneously an image and an idea; it is both a sign and symbol.’ (Evie Salmon)
The image above depicts two child brides in rural Yemen with their husbands. Tahani, the girl in pink, is 8; her husband Majed is 27. Ghada, in green, is also 8, while her husband, Saltan, is 33. Everyday around the world, around 39,000 girls, children like Tahani and Ghada, get married. The reception of this image sent international waves rippling and a campaign, Too Young To Wed, was born out of it, and has already prevented many child marriages. It seems to me then, that this image fits the bill – and simultaneously portrayed the abstract and specific, bringing people who come across it, out of their reality and into another’s.

Steve and Ledonna Cobb leave the ruins of Briarwood elementary school in Oklahoma after the tornado

Jonathan Jones, in writing for The Guardian this week and discussing the iconic image of Steve & Ledonna Cobb carrying their child to safety after the Oklahoma tornado, which has been circulating the web describes this experience beautifully. ‘Coming across it in a newspaper I found that I stopped and pondered. It took me out of the workaday world painted by the words around it. Perhaps the reason a news photograph becomes iconic is that it swamps the rational, detailed, yet often ephemeral reality of journalism with something more universal, passionate and human – the grandeur of a sudden tragic insight into what the human condition really is.’ (Jonathan Jones, The Guardian)

Whilst the iconic image often draws upon design and purpose in advertising and branding as well as for artistic merit , they create a picture of an era. And here we turn to theatre. Last night I saw Clod Ensemble’s Zero at the Brighton Dome, a piece which consistently strove towards creating iconic moments for the audience to experience. Did Clod Ensemble’s work carry an obvious meaning, hint an another and become a sign and a symbol? No, but they did touch upon these elements and their theatrical language certainly doesn’t aim to offer obvious meanings. Instead, their signature movement, sound and live music score hinted at ideas and concepts, as they embedded abstract, symbolic and real life events into their work, as tragic events such as Hurricane Katrina, as well as sibling rivalry and threatening behaviour from strangers all featured. Due to the fragmented, layered nature of their work – the remembered images remain stronger for me than my experience of seeing it live. And here we return to the iconic image – a lasting, haunting image which offers me more than a fleeting experience.

Clod Ensemble

The unique selling point of theatre though is all about the live experience, although ephermal, it’s immersive, and offers audiences a sense of community, a shared experience, a ritual. Put plainly, seeing other bodies move and do things in front of you, for you. The most exciting theatre practitioners though, seek to bring the vocabulary of photography, the iconic image to audiences in creating a multitude of lasting visuals which continue to take our breath away, long after we have left the building.


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