The painterly aspects of this photograph of an Afghan man at a public bath in Kabul are undeniable, yes? The photo, by Rodrigo Abd for the Associated Press, was featured on the New York Times's Lens blog. (You have to look for it: Go to the "Photos of the Day" section and starting thumbing through the story about the recent landslides in China...that's where I found it. Maybe I'm missing something, but I can't figure out why it was filed there.)
At any rate, a little further research revealed that the image was part of a series that Abd has done on daily life in Afghanistan. With its startling beauty, based on chiaroscuro lighting, the picture is a wonderful example of how sophisticated news/feature photography has become. I love the old, bold black-and-white news photos that were taken with Speed Graphics, Tri-X film, and sizzling flashbulbs; their stark frankness held an exploitative thrill, akin to the grim romance of film noir. It's probable that Abd's photo was made with a new digital camera that greatly extends the range of what photographers can capture in low-light situations; that technology allowed him to reference renaissance painting... and painting necessarily leads our minds in certain directions...at least it leads mine in directions that more traditional news photos might not.
Images like this lead me away from the framework of reporting and into the framework of symbolism. I took just enough art history in school to quickly acknowledge the act of bathing with all that is carries: especially the washing away of sin. I recognize also the sensual nature of humanity--and that grace note of the man's body, poised and feminine in its delicacy.
What is the message we are invited to take away after our few seconds of looking? Who's guilt is in need of being cleansed, the bather's or the viewer's? Is the idea of beauty enough here? Do the references to art amplify or obscure the power of the image as reportage?