Why the image of a mystery veteran keeps going viral

Why the image of a mystery veteran keeps going viral
Veteran with the Victory Day Parade May 9, 2007 on the Nevsky Prospekt in St Petersburg, Russia
PHOTO: Facebook @TogetherWeServed / Alexander Petrosyan

The photo of a soldier weeping as he takes part on his own in a WWII Victory March has captured the popular imagination. Kelly Grovier looks at timeless images of loss.

Some photos go viral. Others are chronic. Such images not only spread rapidly through the bloodstream of social media like an acute infection, they crop up again and again in the popular imagination after lying dormant for months or even years.

This is the case with a photo whose recurring poignancy flared up again last week, having done so unpredictably ever since it was first captured nearly a decade ago.

The raw message that the image communicates is one of archetypal sadness: an elderly retired soldier knuckling away tears from his eye as he marches, alone, down a doleful street in a municipal parade.

Clocking up over a million likes on Facebook, the photo by Alexander Petrosyan has resonated globally in spite of the fact (or, more likely, because) the precise identity of the man, his nationality and allegiances, were unknown, if not unknowable.

Untethered to the prejudices of time and place - to the biases of victory or defeat - the man's grief-stricken countenance has propelled itself to the level of symbol, perennially resurfacing as a universal emblem of human heartache.

But will the photo continue to have such power?

Recent investigations into the origin of the image have managed to pin down the decorated soldier's location to St Petersburg in 2007 and to a parade celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany.

More photos have emerged of the veteran receiving flowers and the photographer has recounted that the unidentified man "was upset that he was behind the column with other veterans and could not catch up with them".

Whether widespread knowledge of such specificity will rupture the image's sweeping appeal remains to be seen.

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