The Ringmaster

Kitsch is a joke at the expense of emotion. Kitsch is emotion devoid of personality, manufactured from materials with a set personality.

Children wearing adult clothing always arouse discomfort. The miniature men's suits the boys in this photograph are wearing distorts them, implying that childhood is merely dwarfism. As if children are no more than circus attractions with no other place in our world.

Khalid and Aboud Tariq, AP

But the circus-like distortion is not the only disturbing thing about this photograph. Technically, this shot by Pulitzer Prize-winning AP photographer Muhammed Muheisen is quite accomplished and well-focused; it is very good, in fact, almost too good. Eid el Fitr has arrived; 6-year-old Khalid Tariq and his 3-year-old brother Aboud from the Al-Amari refugee camp, east of Ramallah, are all dressed up for the holiday. The date of the photograph, September 11, is just a kind of coincidence - one of no importance.

What is of key importance in this photograph is the barrel of the gun seen poking into the frame on the left. A third boy, the one pointing the gun, is not shown. So this is a documentary photograph that protests the plundering of childhood, situating the children amid their wretched surroundings, highlighting and isolating them as objects of observation. It depicts their condition symbolically, via their costumes: the adult attire and the toy gun pointed at their heads. This is therefore meant to be a shocking photograph.

But it isn't, for kitsch is a joke at the expense of emotion. Kitsch is emotion devoid of personality, manufactured from materials with a set personality. And so the more one looks at this photograph, the greater the gap that emerges between its aspiration to truth (Palestinian children live in an untenable reality; the violence around them is inserted into their games; their game-playing is cruel because it cuts too close to reality ), and the easily understood, self-evident aesthetic that pleases the eye. (Children always evoke emotion; children in adult clothing always arouse compassion; an evil gun poking in from the side is always just a hint .)

So this is a photograph in which beauty surpasses truth. A photograph in which the one-dimensional nature of the message surpasses the complexity of what it seeks to document. This is "The Crying Boy" at a slightly higher level. This is a photograph that is too pretty, too organized, so plainly communicative that it loses all impact. For the reality in which these children live is indeed an ugly one. They are not a circus attraction. They are specific, unique, individual. And while the photograph does try to say this as well, it is not deep enough to make this kind of statement. It is locked into its own objectives, in a state of kitsch.

Not all of Muheisen's photographs fall apart the way this one does. He is a master of light, composition and perspective. He works in Ramallah and Jerusalem, in war zones, in areas of poverty and conflict, and he received his Pulitzer in 2005, when he was 25, for a photograph from Iraq. The recurrent, clear and most significant motif in Muheisen's photos is children playing with toy guns or holding masks. Not all his photographs resemble tourist postcards from the world of poverty, and in this photograph too, if you take a good look, you can see something more. Something defiant in Aboud Tariq's beautiful dark eyes.