There are many images that illustrate the sadness of disaster, a communities response to tragedy, the human reaction to devastation, but perhaps few fulfil those criteria as accurately in the UK than the image below by David Hurn. An image created at the Aberfan Coal Slip Disaster. Two surviving children stand at the top of the hill overlooking the miners digging to find children from their school still buried in the slag. Over one hundred children in the apparent safety of their school were buried under the waste of a sliding coal tip in Aberfan, Glamorgan, Wales, in 1966 on a wet day in October.
It is an image that has the complex visual narrative of a Breugel, the 16th Century Flemish Renaissance painter of peasants and farmworkers, who painted an earthy, unsentimental but vivid depiction of the rituals of village life, that remain a prime source of iconographic evidence about both physical and social aspects of Flemish and Dutch 16th-century life. The eye is drawn into a multitude of narratives, within Breugel’s paintings, just as it is in Hurn’s Aberfan photograph.
Despite this narrative complexity the eye is drawn to specific detail within Breugel’s paintings. His characters are animated. Using abundant spirit and comic power, he created some of the very earliest images of acute social protest in art history through paintings such as The Fight Between Carnival and Lent and engravings such as The Ass in the School and Strongboxes Battling Piggybanks. There is no comedy in Hurn’s photograph but it’s social impact is as powerful and implicit as Breugel’s work. The characters in Hurn’s photograph are animated, engaged in the process of moving the sodden slag with basic hand tools to try and recover the children buried beneath. There is no sign of uniformed task forces leading the endeavour, these are the people of the village, the parents and miners attempting to save their family and friends children.
Two men seem aware of Hurn and his camera and are facing him with sad and wary eyes. The rest seem oblivious to his presence, as do the two boys in the foreground, the older one consoling the younger one with a reassuring arm around the shoulder as they look down on the remains of their school and the catastrophe that has befallen their classmates. The empathy and sadness is clear between the two children despite only the back of their heads and bodies being seen. They are seeing what we are seeing and we can imagine the stories their faces tell.
But it is one specific detail that my eye has always been drawn to in this photograph. It is the small hole on the right hand shoulder, as we see it, in the jumper of the taller boy. It is a hole that speaks of a social economic reality, a time when jumpers were hand knitted and passed down from generation to generation. When clothes were repaired, patched and darned.
That hole presents, to me, a narrative in itself. It tells us about the economic situation of the boys family. It points to the social situation that families in mining communities in South Wales faced daily. These were hard working, make-do-and-mend families, close communities that relied on each other and supported each other whatever challenge they faced. Of course, we can find such information throughout the image. From the coal blackened faces and miners hats to the flat caps and workers clothes of those men taking on the tragic duty of moving the slag. From the terraces of brick-built miners houses directly behind the skeletal remains of the school building to the heavy grey sky’s that sit over the whole scene.
But it is that hole in the jumper that my eye has persistently returned to over the decades that I have known this image. A small hole that I can never draw my eyes away from, a small hole that connects directly to my own personal history. A small detail in a tragic image that illustrates the timeless power of narrative within the photographic image.
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Taylor Francis 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Taylor Francis 2019). His next book What Does Photography Mean to You? will be published in 2021.