Playtime a powerful reflection of life in Cairo

Two-year old Thailan plays with a friend at Elmwood Apartments as they point toy guns at each other in Cairo Friday, August 21, 2015. Thailan's mother who was watching them said that they act out what they see adults do. While they were playing the adults who live in the apartment complex were talking about the bullet holes in the windows and walls of the apartments and talking about how it was common for there to be gun shots fired there.

While on assignment with reporter Molly Parker for the story that ran in The Southern on Sunday, Aug. 23, 2015, ("Chaos In Cairo"), I took a photograph that was included in my initial edit and is with the online version of the story, but was not reproduced in print.

It is common operating procedure to make the first edit and then decisions are made by other editors as to what photos will be included in the print version and what photos will go online. Often the decisions are made with regard to how much space is available and what photos best tell the story and fit the layout.

The photo included with this blog is one rife with meaning and potential for different interpretation by readers, and I discussed that with The Southern Editor Autumn Phillips when I turned in the initial edit of photos.

The photo is of two children, a boy and girl, pointing toy guns at each other in front of one of the Alexander Housing Authority apartment buildings in Cairo. The photo was taken while Parker and I were touring the facility with Alexander Housing Authority Interim Director Tom Upchurch.

We initially drove around the apartments and Upchurch pointed out details and discussed the state of the complex from his vehicle. I asked if we could stop and get out so that I could take photos. We did this first at McBride Apartments, where we met a resident who came out and was willing to talk to us. She told us about some issues she had with her apartment and invited us in her home to show us. She then talked about safety and security concerns and mentioned that even though there were concerns where she lived, that it was worse on the other side in the nearby Elmwood Apartments.

We were told that the Elmwood Apartments had visible gunshot holes in the walls and windows. Tom Upchurch agreed to take us to that side to see, but said that we might not want to get out of the vehicle for safety concerns.

I have lived and worked in areas with similar issues, so I was not too concerned. Once we got to the apartments with the bullet holes, I took some photos from the vehicle, but then decided to get out for a better look. As I did, a resident pulled into the parking lot and we greeted her. Upchurch and Parker struck up a conversation. As we were there for a while standing in the parking lot, other residents came out and were interested in talking to us. Many had concerns.

When we told them we were there looking at the bullet holes, they were very candid in telling us about the realities of the their situation living there and talked about the dangers of random gun violence. All of them voiced concerns about their safety living there. They all agreed that their biggest concern was for the children's safety. Some voiced a desire to move somewhere safer.

While the adults talked, the children went on playing and ignoring us. The boy and girl in the photo, both 2 years old, were with Myra Rayford who was one of the adults telling us about the gun violence. I was taking photos of her in front of the apartment building and asked her about the children. She said the boy is her son Thailan and the girl belonged to someone else in the apartment complex and they often play together. We were told that residents of the apartments kept an eye on one another's children and made sure that they were brought inside and safe if any trouble broke out.

As she was talking to me, her son and the girl were squabbling over a toy gun that Thailan had. His mother made him give it to the girl. Rayford had another toy gun she then gave to her son ending the dispute and allowing the two to continue their play, each equally armed with toy guns. So they did what any kid would do; they pointed their guns at each other and pretended to shoot.

At first, I couldn't believe what I was seeing: two young children acting out the very thing we adults were talking about as concerns. At first, I hesitated to take a picture. I looked to the mother, Myra, to see if she would take issue with me photographing her son and the girl playing this way. When I did so, she said something that struck me as a profound, succinct assessment of the situation. She said the two were acting out and mimicking what they see around them. This is their world on a daily basis and they were innocently mirroring what they see grown-ups do.

It made me think back to my own childhood in Indiana, in a crime-free small town that has had only three or four murders in its history that I know about. As children, we used to play the same way. It always involved guns — toy ones or sticks or Wiffle ball bats we pretended were guns. We would point them at one another and say "bang bang," and then argue about who shot first and who should be dead. We would chant, "Bang bang, you're dead, brush your teeth and go to bed."

But we were acting out what we saw on TV or in the movies. I cannot remember the first time I saw a gun other than on the hip of a town policeman, and I never saw that gun drawn. I know I had friends and classmates whose fathers had guns for hunting, or maybe a handgun hidden away. It was not our reality. It was fantasy and meant nothing to us other than the drama of acting out scenes in our own Western movie or cops TV show that we created in our heads.

To these children, it is their reality. It is all around them. When I took this photo and when I uploaded it to the computer I knew it was powerful and possibly incendiary. I sent a screen grab of it from the back of my camera to Phillips right away. She agreed that it was powerful, but that there was a good chance that the photo would be misinterpreted and misunderstood. She said that further discussions would have to be had about whether or not to use it.

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Photographer

Richard Sitler is a photographer for The Southern Illinoisan.

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