An astonishing image of now

26th June 2016

The official Twitter account of Sadiq Khan sent out this image yesterday at 4.30pm. It shows the Mayor of London at the Pride rally in Trafalgar Square, and as @dannybrown commented this morning ‘This is like the poster for the film, where the shopkeepers son fixes the racist country.’ Despite looking as if it was taken on a not-so-great mobile phone (or maybe that’s part of its greatness), this is an astonishing image of the moment.

Here is a single silhouetted figure, seen from behind, and so both slightly mysterious but also powerful. But the identity of the figure is at least partly ambiguous, male certainly, but neither obviously black nor white. At the figure’s feet are representatives of the media, primed to take a message to the world. Beyond is a gloriously diverse multitude, who we can legitimately take to be the nation thanks to the symbolic nature of the instantly recognisable setting.

And behind them is a classical backdrop formed by the facade of the National Gallery – nation again, but also five hundred years of history, of culture, indeed of European culture. And look, the dome and the pediment echo the head and shoulders of our hero, creating the most intimate of links between the two.

To the left, flying tentatively above the columns and architraves is the Union flag, and to the right are the coverings of repair work, suggesting perhaps something ruined beneath, or at least in need of urgent structural attention. And in the distance are lowering, threatening storm clouds. Or might this be, as Kirk McElhearn just offered on Twitter, smoke from the fires of a country ablaze?

Walter Benjamin’s well-known words about the angel of history may be apposite here:

A storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in [the angel of history’s] wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Despite having nothing explicitly to do with the chaos of now, this image feels remarkably resonant for this moment – and perhaps for the future. Does anyone know who the photographer is?

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