Singled Out by a Ray of Light

SOMETIMES a light surprises.

Photographer Neal J. Menschel had been shooting this political rally in Alexandra Township, South Africa, for several hours. He focused first on the speakers, members of the African National Congress and South African Communist Party who convened this gathering one week after the release of Nelson Mandela. After photographing the standard activist motifs - earnest gestures, upraised fists, and flags - he worked his way behind the podium to look back at the crowd.

He was looking, he said, for ``something different'' that represented the mood of the rally - or the nation. In a wide-angle shot, he looks for patterns in the crowd; but in a tighter shot like this one, he wants something that singles out an individual. It could be a flag, a hat, or an intense face.

Steven Spielberg does something similar in his film, Schindler's List. In one scene, a child flees Nazis through the streets of the Warsaw ghetto. The filmmaker tints her coat a dull red. Not bright enough to be jarring in a black-and-white film, but enough to stand out in the crowd, as if to say, ``Pay attention to this individual. Her story is significant. Her life is significant.''

Mr. Menschel didn't need red tint. He was given a line of pure natural light, a late-afternoon beam that broke through the walls of the soccer stadium.

``When I took that photograph, I knew I had something very unusual,'' he said. ``When something like that happens to you, you know it's a gift.''

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