On Wednesday, September 18, Cathleen Alexis apologized on behalf of her son, Aaron Alexis, who killed 12 people when he opened fire on Navy Yard in Washington, DC two days prior. In addition to reading a prepared statement, Cathleen Alexis allowed Bishop Gerald Seabrooks to hold the statement out for reporters to view. AP photographer Seth Wenig took a high-resolution photograph of the statement in the Bishop’s hands, which was picked up by most media outlets that ran coverage of Alexis’ public apology. The statement itself does not need transcribing; it is fully legible in the photograph. Also distinctly visible are Bishop Seabrooks’ hands. Yet many outlets have failed to differentiate ownership between the hands and the note, which was written by Alexis. In many places, it seems plausible that the hands might also belong to Alexis– a misconception that stirs tragic intrigue. Because of this, this image belongs in a particular genre of American photographs: those in which hands tell, and often betray, an entire story.
Perhaps the most famous photograph in this genre is Salva Veder’s iconic Vietnam-era photograph of the Stirm family’s reunion, “Burst of Joy.” In the photograph, Lt. Col. Robert Stirm is reuniting with his wife and their four children after spending over five years in a prisoner of war camp. As daughter Lorrie Stirm runs to her father, she spreads her hands wide open. Her fingers extend from her palms like rays of sunshine. Lorrie’s hands manifest her joy (there’s no other word for it) at her father’s return. Lorrie’s mother’s hand, as only one of her hands is visible in the photograph, tells another story. Clutching her skirt in her left hand as she hurries to greet her husband, trailing behind three of her four children, there is strain in Loretta Stirm’s expression of happiness. Loretta Stirm’s clenched hand hints at the secret tragedy in this reunion: she terminated her relationship with her husband via Dear John letter. He received the letter while in transit, days before his reunion with his family. The tension between the joy in Lorrie Stirm’s hands and the strain in Loretta Stirm’s clutched one expresses the tension underlying the family’s reunion. The Stirm hands are communicative and moving. They reveal what the photograph initially hides.
It is tempting to look for similar narrative power in the hands that hold Cathleen Alexis’ apology. Were they her hands, as they are credited to be in several sources, they would contain a life story: Cathleen Alexis’ hands once held a fragile, newborn Aaron Alexis and now they held an apology on behalf of Aaron Alexis. No mother could possibly foresee this narrative arc, and Alexis’ singular, spectacular hands could have embodied her unique perspective in this tragedy.
Instead, we have the hands of Bishop Seabrooks: his thick, weathered, un-manicured hands. We have his ring. We have his cuffs and his cuff links. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Seabrooks’ hands or their accessories, and surely they have stories of their own to tell, but they’re not the hands we’d expect to hold this note. Alexis’ note expresses complicated, reeling grief. The closing line, “My heart is broken,” is gut-wrenching. In imagining her broken heart, it is tempting to want some physical part of her that can visibly stand in for the whole, the way her broken heart stands in for her experience in the past week. It is tempting to want those hands to be Cathleen Alexis’.
The fact that her hands do not hold the note does not make her note any less brave or any less heartfelt. There is pain in this image still, and when there is pain before our eyes, we somehow want to see more. We want to see more because we want to know more—as if understanding an image better might help us to understand the senseless tragedy from which it originates. There is tension between truth and desire in wanting to see, and yet not seeing, the apology in Cathleen Alexis’ hands. The most powerful photographs in American journalistic history, like “Burst of Joy,” seem to always contain some tension between truth and desire: brutal truth captured in the image, intense desire to know more, desire for everything to be different. That tension, of course, represents a greater tension inherent in these images: the pull between wanting to understand a tragedy and accepting a tragedy as incomprehensible. And it isn’t just large-scale tragedies, like Aaron Alexis’ life and death, which are incomprehensible. The story behind “Burst of Joy” is another incomprehensible American tragedy. If Tolstoy was correct in stating that “all happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy its own way,” then maybe it’s not surprising that we want to see Cathleen Alexis’ hands. Perhaps all we want from these images of sorrow, once we accept them as unknowable, is to bear witness to each one’s unique, narrative power. We want to see that they do not resemble each other.