In this painting – I mean photograph – Olympic and Paralympic star Oscar Pistorius is given tremendous dignity. The solitude of his situation is dramatically illuminated as he faces the most serious murder charge that can be brought in South Africa. It is hard to believe the picture was not set up for hours to get the composition right and the lighting suitably Rembrandtesque. It really does have the gravitas of an oil painting. And yet this is a real-life image seized by Siphiwe Sibeko during an emotional, contentious, crowded pretrial hearing.
Does this study in suffering sentimentalise Pistorius? It is far more subtle than that. The truth of what happened at his house in the early hours of Valentine’s Day will not be decided by a court for many months, although defence and prosecution agree that he shot Reeva Steenkamp dead – either deliberately, or in a terrible mistaken attack on an imagined burglar. Whatever the truth, here we see him isolated by the awful event and unresolved mystery of the night Steenkamp died. The picture eerily captures his psychological isolation. The courtroom audience is physically and symbolically separated from him by a low wooden wall that might as well be a 100ft high barbed wire fence. It is the barrier between the accused and unaccused.
Some of the people look at him, some don’t, and the eyes of those who study Pistorius seem mystified and uncertain rather than emotionally committed for or against. Meanwhile, his own eyes are shadowed and enigmatic. His pain is not just in his face but his entire body language – his sportsman’s frame is taut and electrified, as if he were ready to sprint, but it is the ordeal of the bail hearing that fills him with angst and supercharged emotion.
Clearly, South Africa’s courtrooms are designed by someone with a flair for the dramatic. What gives this photograph such intensity is the court lighting, which would not be out of place in a Caravaggio painting. The room is dark, with just enough light to reveal faces against tones of gloom. The wall behind the public gallery is black, except for a pool of light that reveals a rusty, or bloody, red-brick arc of wall. This curve of light heightens our concentration on the solitary figure of Pistorius, for he is caught by the camera right next to it. And so he stands in shadows, picked out by a reddish glow, his eyes dark pools of horror.
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