Weary Warmth and Buttons

ON a hot day, three boys with their arms around each other stood near a barren rock quarry in Jauna Pur, India, near New Delhi. Staff photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman was at first drawn to their mothers, working down in the quarry, using iron mallets to break the rocks.

The saris worn by the women were in rags, and their hands were heavily calloused from the effort of pounding the mallets. Nearby, the rocks were being thrown into an old dump truck.

Stetson Freeman said that when she turned around to look at the children, they were not laughing and curious, the way kids usually are when a Western photographer suddenly appears in a remote village or small town. ``They were friendly, but they didn't laugh,'' she said. ``Their life must have been very hard.''

The two boys in the photo, Sultan and Bachan, stood quietly along with the third boy, just out of the picture to the right. The frayed weariness in the photo is perhaps balanced a little by the warmth of a boy's arm flung across the shoulder of a friend. And down in the right-hand corner, the tips of two fingers reveal that the trust is returned.

And the four buttoned buttons on the shirt - shaping a composition within a composition - suggest that had the missing button been there, it would be buttoned too.

The fact that the head of one boy is not included in the photo simply shifts attention to the warmth, texture, and weariness Stetson Freeman brought together in a perfectly balanced composition. It is a photo of two boys, but it is much more.

Even if the story behind this photo is not known, there is a quiet poignancy here, as if a soft, textured gray light had been thrown on the boys, a light that some black-and-white photos radiate, conveying a different emotion from color photos.

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