Recent photos show a Syrian photographer putting aside his camera to rescue children injured in a bombing. Kelly Grovier remembers a forgotten portrait of self-sacrifice.

In theory, the artist and the reporter have little in common beyond a determination to communicate. Where the artist’s self can never be disentangled from his or her work (“how can we know the dancer from the dance?”, as the Irish poet William Butler Yeats once asked), journalistic ethics dictate that a reporter’s identity must never encroach upon the story he or she is telling. One is the epitome of subjectivity, the other of objectivity. But theories exist to be disproved, as extraordinary footage captured this week on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Aleppo poignantly reveals.

In the Frame

Each week Kelly Grovier takes a photo from the news and likens it to a great work of art.

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At a scene of devastation, where a bomb had just ignited chaos, the Syrian photojournalist Abd Alkader Habak found himself forced to choose between remaining separate from the unfolding events or setting his camera aside and inserting himself into the action. It was the sight of a child lying face down, hurled from the blast, that tipped the balance for Habak. Presumed dead by bystanders, the boy caught Habak’s attention when the photographer noticed his hand move slightly. Suddenly, Habak was running with the boy in his arms to the safety of an ambulance only to return, moments later, to rescue a little girl who was crying for help.

Captured in mid-stride, the reporter had become the reported – the image-maker became the image. Footage of Habak saving these children recalls another moving portrait of heroic humanity. In 1854, the English painter John Everett Millais found himself called to preserve an image of courage he believed might otherwise go unheralded. The result would be a profile in courage that would help define fearlessness in the popular imagination for a generation.

Mesmerised by the sight of a nearby blaze in the early morning sky, so the story goes, Millais instructed a cab driver to head in the direction of the fire. When the artist and his brother arrived at the scene, he was transfixed by the gallantry of a pair of firemen, perched precariously on a weakening beam (“two black silhouettes against the mass of heaving flame”, as Millais’s brother would later recall) and attacking the fire with a hose, when suddenly the roof broke – “carrying with it the rafter and the two brave men”.

Moved by the dreadful events (and “the shout of horror that rent the air”), Millais was determined to honour the unsung fire fighters, arguing that “Soldiers and sailors have been praised on canvas a thousand times. My next picture shall be of the fireman.” To do so, Millais painstakingly reconstructed in his studio the atmosphere of the smouldering scene, alchemising ingeniously from sheets of coloured glass and burnt wooden planks the lethal claustrophobia of smoke and fear. The result is the gleaming portrait The Rescue (1855). Millais hired a model to play the role of the sturdy fireman, whose chiselled physique was lumbered with the weight of three children: two on his back and one under his arm.

In the ensuing years, Millais would seize every opportunity he could to accompany his friend, the chief of the fire brigade, to the countless fires erupting around London. It was a time when the brigade was becoming a public institution, dedicated to protecting human life rather than simply preserving property from damage. When placed alongside this week’s photo from Syria, The Rescue can be seen as a kind of fantasised self-portrait of the artist doing what Millais couldn’t on that fateful morning – and what Habak did this week: rescuing something far more vital and precious than any image.

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