I know the sad kid at the Zoo

October 11, 2013

I saw the picture the way we see so many things on Facebook – a quick glance, a quick judgment. Blink. It was a picture of a little boy, seen from the back, standing on the fence outside the National Zoo, under a sign that reads “Zoo Temporarily Closed.” I noticed it because the little boy looked about the same age as my little boy, and we live close to the zoo, and the zoo’s closure has been, in our household, the shutdown’s most concrete manifestation. So I thought about linking the picture on Facebook, as being expressive of our shutdown experience, and then decided not to, and moved on.

Until our nanny-share partner came by that evening and said, We had a big day today; our son was in the news.


How unobservant we are in our relentless scanning of images. I see that little boy every weekday. When I have time, I take him and my son on my lap and read them stories. We gave him the sweater he is wearing in that picture. But I didn’t realize it was him.

That picture – in case you missed it – has been the visual flavor du jour for at least 24 hours. “The iconic image of the shutdown,” it’s been called, and people have shamed the government for breaking a child’s heart. Others have jumped to comment about political propaganda, staged images, manipulation, making light of the seriousness of the issue – because the shutdown has stopped medical research, called off food inspectors, and held up veterans’ benefits, and we are disregarding, even slighting all of these things if we presume to sum up the gravity of the situation in this single image of a child.

It helps that the iconography is simple: kid in an animal hat, zoo bars, Love Locked Out. It also helps that you can’t see the child’s face. The juxtaposition of sign and small body and quasi-narrative situation invites our projections. We assume that the child is forlorn, or that the picture is staged (it’s not), or that the photographer was seeking to make a political point.

We think we have seen all of that in this picture, and we begin to discuss the picture as if we had seen those things, and as if the picture had portrayed them. But it turns out – as I realized when I discovered I had overlooked the picture’s subject – that we aren’t really looking. And much of what passes for commentary or dialogue – certainly in the immediate responses to this picture on all of the many Web sites and forums and tweets that have disseminated it – are reactions based on our own shadow-projections. Nowhere is this clearer than in a photograph that doesn’t actually show the face or even the gender of the subject. “Entitled little bastard,” wrote one kind soul on the Web site of the Atlantic: that’s a lot to read into the back side of a kid in a monkey hat.

There is, it’s true, something scary, or sad, about this picture. But it’s not the shutdown. It’s that a father took his son out for a walk in the neighborhood and sent a funny snapshot to his wife, and she put it up on Instagram, and someone else put it up on Facebook, and someone else put it up on Reddit, and within a matter of hours, bam, there was the toddler on the NBC Nightly News, fair game for commenters around the nation.

Now, when I look at the picture, I do see lost innocence. But it’s our innocence as parents, learning first-hand what it feels like to have an intimate moment, an inside joke, exposed to the corrosive air of public opinion. Our children, fortunately, are oblivious: to the shutdown, to the comments, to the fact that the zoo is closed, to anything but the pleasure of climbing on a gate while taking a walk with your father in your favorite monkey hat. The picture doesn’t show the little boy’s face, but I promise you, he’s laughing.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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Emily Yahr | October 10, 2013