The Broader Picture: Down a blind alley

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The Independent Culture
WITHIN 10 minutes of this picture being taken, the hunted man in the foreground was dead. His pursuers chased him down the alley until he fell to his knees, then went at him with knives, sticks, stones, metal rods and pipes. Once they had killed him, he was rolled on to his back and a young man in a baseball cap slit his throat. This man and a fellow ring-leader then embraced and wept. The police removed the body, placing it on a stretcher with the corpse of another of the six Christians killed in Jakarta that Sunday.

The attacks were carried out by Muslims on Christians suspected of damaging a mosque the previous night, 21 November 1998. It was the worst of the recent religious violence in Indonesia. The country's Muslim majority is increasingly impoverished and embittered, and President Habibie, whose grip on power is tenuous, has been courting Muslim extremists.

This image won James Nachtwey second prize for a "Spot News Story" in the World Press Photo awards last month. Nachtwey, one of the world's great news photographers, recorded each stage in the killing. His sequence follows the action so closely that it is unsettling, not only in its graphic documentation of violence but also in its intimacy. In this photograph, the Muslim attackers are so fixed on their prey that they seem oblivious to the photographer's presence. But moments later, the man cutting the Christian's throat is turned almost theatrically towards the camera.

As the young killers grieved before him, Nachtwey himself felt uneasy about what was going on. "It was hard to figure out where that grief was coming from," he says. "They were almost manufacturing it to justify their actions." This is revenge drama, a murder as symbolic as it is hot-blooded, and all the more chilling for that.