Depth of Field

I looked at Trevor, who looked at Ossema. “That’s a good question,” he said. He leaned forward, and in slow, accented English, said, “If politicians try to do something in America—if they try to build a dam or spy on people—the citizens get very angry. But the American government pretty much does what it wants in the rest of the world. Most citizens trust it. If you ask an American, ‘How do you feel that you’re responsible for tens of thousands of civilians killed in the last decade?’ they will say, ‘What are you talking about?’ ” Trevor tilted his head against a column. “I’m sorry,” he said. “This is something I get very passionate about.”

The next day, we intended to go west to Sbeitla, but took a wrong turn and went, instead, to Sidi Bouzid. This was where the Arab Spring began, when a young vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, was harassed by municipal officials for selling his wares with out a permit and self-immolated beside the governor’s office. Trevor wanted to find the spot where it happened, so Ammar inquired directions from a long-winded man on the sidewalk. “What did he say?” asked Trevor.

“Go this way for a few blocks,” said Ammar. “Then ask.”

The streets were deserted, and the dwellings too, some gutted to all but bricks. After several blocks, we saw a woman in jeans and a headscarf. “Ask her,” said Trevor.

“I won’t do it,” said Ammar. It’s considered indecent for a Muslim man to approach a woman, even with a request as benign as ours. “You do it,” he told me.

“I don’t speak Arabic,” I said.

“Say something,” said Trevor.

“Bonjour, Madame,” I said, catching the woman’s attention. I looked back at Ammar, who began to speak. The woman scowled at him and kept walking.

“You see?” said Ammar.

The place where Bouazizi set himself on fire was a patch of pavement in a busy street. Trevor pointed his camera at the ground. He squatted, planted a foot, lifted his heel. A boy on a motorbike posed in jest. Trevor turned to find another angle, and noticed five men sitting in the shade of a kiosk. He kneeled and took their picture. When he showed them the photograph, one man stood to leave; another shook his hand. Trevor returned to the patch of pavement and tried once more. “I give up,” he said. “Let’s go.”

We drove north, and when the sun had nearly set, turned down a dusty road lined in prickly pear. We parked by a cluster of houses, and several children came to greet us.  A young girl showed Trevor the way she lowered a yellow jug into a well to collect water. She pulled up the rope, hand over hand, as Trevor took her picture. The light, he would tell me later, was the sort that stretched the   medium to edge of its capability. It reminded him of his favorite photograph, one he took at a cattle camp, late in the day, in South Sudan. In this photograph, there are no guns or dead people. There is only a woman, her belly round and dropping with child, and a gray cow she holds by the horn. She is a dark, bulbous shadow, her eyes barely visible. The sun sets behind her and washes the sky in white. “It’s grainy and blurry and a little strange,” Trevor told me. “But I like how imperfect it is.”

Sierra Crane-Murdoch is a freelance writer based in Colorado. She writes for High Country News magazine, among others.

 

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