The photograph was taken by Konstantinos Tsakalidis, as massive blazes forced residents to flee towns and villages by ferry. Fueled by a brutal heat wave, the fires on Evia — a large island connected to the mainland by a narrow strait — have been burning for days.
Tsakalidis’s image works on every level. Its content is harrowing and its construction powerful. The woman’s anguish and fear are framed by the geometry of two garden walls that force our eye past the foreground of her pain deep into the background, where a house lies in peril. There’s hardly time to register details, the well-tended trees in the well-kept yard, the rounded stones carefully laid on the walls that lead to what is presumably her home, perhaps a place where she has gathered a lifetime of memories. The diagonals make the eye race to the fire, just as the fire races to the house.
But the photograph also works at the symbolic level. As the image circulated Monday, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its most dire report yet on the destruction our planet faces if we don’t limit the emission of greenhouse gases. As headlines blared the word “alarm,” this woman personified collective fear: What she is suffering, we will suffer; what she has lost, we will lose. She lives on an island called Evia, we live on an island called Earth. The people in her village have been forced to flee. Where will we go if the fire comes for us?
The photograph of the woman captures a substantial truth, but a partial one. Fire is not the only vector of devastation. There also is flooding, another catastrophe that seems always to take us by surprise, just as it took the residents of small towns in Northwest Germany by surprise last month. Then there are slower, more incremental forms of destruction: sea-level rise that threatens low-lying nations, the spread of new diseases that affect not just humans, but forests, crops and pasture land, too. Refugees from natural disaster as well as from armed conflict over diminishing resources also threaten to destabilize large parts of the globe, if not all of it.
The Greek image also is limited in its truth because it captures one particular locus of suffering — a beautiful Mediterranean island in a relatively wealthy European country. Billions more people suffer the devastation of climate change without ever being memorialized by images like this one, because they live outside the glare of the Western media’s focus on its own backyard. One reason we want this image to be symbolic is because we want it to be universal: This warning goes out to everyone, this pain could be, almost certainly will be, everyone’s pain.
So, we lapse quickly into reflexive ideas about how images work, and cliches about what they mean. Does the image exploit a woman’s pain? No, because it is something bigger — it’s a warning. And perhaps this is the warning that will at last get through. This is the alarm that will finally wake those who resist the reality of climate change and the urgent necessity of human measures to mitigate and reverse it. All of that is a mix of fallacy and wishful thinking. And those cliches about warnings wash up just as they always do, against the old, imperturbable fortress of complacency, denial and greed.
Which brings us just as reliably to despair. For years when it comes to climate change, and millennia when it comes to other crises, humans have fallen back on what seems an essential, ineluctable truth: When people finally get scared enough, they will change. There is an immense amount of hope embedded in that idea, hope that truth and reality will prevail over resistance and dogma.
That hope helps, in part, explain why images like the one made by Tsakalidis rise above the others. If fear hasn’t worked yet, then perhaps we need even more dire images, even starker warnings. We must perfect our images to wake the conscience of others. It is the quantum of fear that matters. Perhaps, when a deadly virus takes your neighbor, your parents or your children, perhaps then you will see the light and get a vaccination. And so, we ask the dying in the hospital, have you changed your mind? Has the fear touched you yet? Some of them say yes, but it’s too late.
This summer lacerates us as we gradually accept that warnings won’t work. The pain of an elderly woman in Greece will not change the behavior of oil companies and oligarchs, who spend billions on rocket ships as Gaia withers and burns. As we accept a new truth — that the world cannot be scared into reform — we must sort through a new reality with new challenges.
The main one is despair. The most troubling content of this image from Greece is that it’s too late. A woman is about to lose everything, and we are out of time to help her. The fear that we are too late makes change even more difficult. The smoker after 30 years of a pack a day thinks, “It’s too late,” and lights another. As the planet burns, in Greece, in California, in Siberia, there is the debilitating thought that it is too late, so why bother?
The same people who monetized and exploited our complacency will monetize and exploit our despair. I look back over years of writing about art that dealt with climate change and wonder: In underscoring the alarm sounded by so many artists, did I only add to the despair?
Despair is a dead end. Naive hope is a dead end. And no one ever listens to Cassandra. So, what next? The more I stare at the image of the anguished woman, the more I see a long history of representations of apocalypse, the burning of Carthage or the Wagnerian fires that destroy Valhalla. Sometimes, in these tales that wallow in despair, there is subplot or a coda to the destruction. New people inherit the Earth, and remake it.
For some reason I can’t quite explain, when I first saw this woman’s suffering, I kept thinking: I hope she has children, and her children have children, and they are not only furious, but also smart, strategic and fearless. And young, unacquainted with despair and allergic to the idea that anything is too late.