Portrait of a Hero

Nashua Telegraph Tue, Dec 10, 1996

Staff photos by Craig Ambrosio
Above: Jennifer Hanlon, a Windham firefighter, cools off with some snow after fighting a house fire Monday on Hillside Road in Windham.

Early in 1997 I put up a web page based on a couple of presents my mother gave me for the Christmas of '96. The first was a book on the Pre-Raphaelite artists and the second was a clipping from the Nashua Telegraph. The clipping featured a photograph by Craig Ambrosio who had also photographed mother's house when she opened it for tours during her town's 250th Anniversary celebration. The picture in the clipping was of a local firefighter, a young lady in her early 20's named Jennifer Hanlon.

The thing that struck both my mother and me was how much Ambrosio's picture of Ms. Hanlon resembled the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, so when I created my web paged, I was a little puckish, and cast it as an "Identify the Mystery Artist" challenge, juxtaposing 10 extracts from Pre-Raphaelite paintings with a similar section of the news photo. On a second page, I revealed trick, showing the full photo, and presenting a review of it as a portrait of heroism, the sort of thing we have far to few of in these cynical post-modern anti-hero days.

This year (2001) my sister gave me another book on the Pre-Raphaelites, and the heroism of firefighters is on all of our minds, so of course I thought of my old pages, and decided that some of what I wrote then was even more pertinent today. Thus this new page. I've left the old pages on the net.

I wrote in those original pages that:

"The Pre-Raphaelites generally drew their subject matter from Arthurian and classical legends. By contrast Ambrosio's photo is contemporary, somewhat gritty reality. Still, the strong emotional content of the picture, the model's classic beauty and her tousled red hair all echo the work of the Pre-Raphaelites. By evoking their style, Ambrosio gives his subject something of a legendary feel. We are reminded that this very real and weary woman is also a romantic and heroic figure.

"This reminder is, I think, of major importance given the state of things these days. The notion of heroism is far too often dismissed, denigrated or ignored. Cultural relativism tells us that values and mores differ from culture to culture, that there are no absolutes. Without absolutes, without an objective good versus evil, the notions of heroes and villains tend to lose their meaning. Because of this we lose our ideals and our heroes."

Well, things have changed some, but the reminder is just as appropriate. After Sep 11, 2001 heroism is on everyone's mind as are the ideals of our country. The firefighters of the FDNY and the passengers of Flight 93, who died fighting and preventing terrorism have reminded us what heroes are, but the extraordinary aspects of September 11 may have let us overlook to things. The first is that heroism is an everyday thing. The firefighters who risked and gave their lives at the World Trade Center represent many thousands of firefighters who risk their lives year round in large towns and small. This photo, from small town New Hampshire helps us recall it.

I touched on the other aspect in my original review.

"Here we see the same courage and the heroism that the Pre-Raphaelites and the Romantics portrayed in the figures of Arthurian and ancient myth. Here we see strength, courage and heroism in the guise of a woman, a woman that looks very much like the figures of those earlier artists, except that then, she would much more likely have been the damosel in distress, the betraying seductress, the tragic figure, or the hero's heart's desire. Here she is the hero.

"It seems to me that Ambrosio reverses part of Rodin's message of the Caryatid Who Has Fallen Under Her Stone. In that sculpture Rodin ridiculed the ancients who carved the supporting columns of huge buildings in the forms of maidens. This Rodin shows us was unfair, asking a girl to do a man's work. He did, however, show us the Caryatid's heroism as she struggled in vain, refusing to give up even when she could not bear her burden. Ambrosio's woman, though, shows us not only courage, but strength. This woman can and does do a man's job. She is a heroic figure we can all admire and is a suitable role model for boys and girls alike."

One thing that I haven't seen covered very much in the Sep 11th and "War on Terrorism" coverage is the role of women as anything other than victims. We've seen a lot of coverage of the women of Afghanistan as damosels in distress, and the coverage of the widows of firemen and the like, but not as much about women as heroes. The photo of Ms. Hanlon reminds us that there are women of strength and courage.

As I considered writing this page I decided to do a bit of research, checking up to see if there were any references to my page or perhaps to Ms. Hanlon. I was not too surprised to find a handful of news items mentioning her.

In the minutes of the Windham Selectmen's meeting of May 17, 1999, we read:

Jennifer Hanlon was named "Medic of the Year"...
Also Jennifer Hanlon just received her nursing degree on Friday.
In the Saturday, May 5, 2001 issue of the Eagle-Tribune, we find:
Humanitarian Award: Windham Firefighter Jennifer Hanlon was recognized for donating 60 percent of her liver to save her uncle who lives in California. She flew to California for the transplant and will spend at eight weeks recovering.

And so it would seem that I was on the mark when I wrote that she was someone "we can all admire and is a suitable role model for boys and girls alike", and that Ambrosio captured not merely an icon of an ideal, but the image of one of the America's many home town heroes. As dramatic as 9-11 was, we need to recall that heroism and humanitarianism is an everyday thing, and not confined merely to times of national spectacle.

I continue to salute Ms. Hanlon and the artistry of Ambrosio's portrait of her.