Surrealistic Portraiture or Reality ?

AT first glance, there is an air of something sinister in this photo. A stern-faced minister appears to confront the shadow of a clutching hand coming between him and a cross.

In fact, according to photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman, there was nothing at all sinister under way on this evening in Belfast, Northern Ireland, a few years ago when she ``saw'' this photo in the Sandy Row Methodist Church.

The gentleman seated at left is the Reverend Sydney Callaghan. He is listening intently as a visiting minister - standing just behind the podium blurred at right and several feet in front of the seated Callaghan - is delivering a sermon on peace. The spiked shadow of the gesturing hand on the wall belongs to the visiting minister.

Even with this factual explanation, the photo continues to resonate powerfully. The symbols of good and evil are melodramatic, as if a character in a Graham Greene novel had popped to life to face the torment of an indulgent past.

But after all, this is a photograph, and Mr. Callaghan does have his legs casually crossed. Hardly the body language of someone being threatened or tormented. And in essence, all photographs are symbols and images of something changed by rendering three dimensions to a flat surface.

In this case, the condensed perspective and the juxtaposition of the three symbolic elements render a meaning that is clearly different from what one would have seen with the ``naked eye'' that day.

Or is it?

The challenge here, and in all photographs, is to understand that a photo is the result of a technique, sometimes artfully done as in this surrealistic portraiture, and sometimes done to capture action, texture, joy, sorrow, or a hundred other feelings or conditions.

But is the photo ``true?'' Is it ``real?'' Through the semantic haze, and through all the infinite techniques in the age of photography, nearly all conclusions are valid.

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