Ralph Crane’s 1952 photograph of a wailing child and a seven-foot-tall robot on the streets of Hamburg, Germany, might be the single funniest picture of a terrified child that any of us will ever see. But why is it so amusing?
The anguish in the child’s face is almost palpable, and no reasonable person takes pleasure in a toddler’s pain fear. And yet . . . chances are excellent that most people seeing this photo for the first time will, in fact, react not with horror, but with laughter. Where does that laughter come from? And what is it about this particular kid’s predicament that so reliably sparks mirth in grown-ups?
The likeliest and simplest explanation, of course, is that any grown-up can relate to that little boy’s terror. All of us, after all, at some point in our childhoods, confront scenarios, objects, creatures that scare the bejesus out of us. The boy in Crane’s photo is learning that the hard way. But as adults, we also know something that the child in the picture can not possibly know: namely, that he is perfectly safe. That nothing is going to happen to him. That the creepy mechanical man — a robot named Sabor — lumbering toward him is in fact little more than a huge, harmless toy.
Maybe, in the end, it’s not really amusement or delight that elicits our laughter when we see Crane’s photograph, but a kind of relief. Maybe we laugh because we’re glad we’ve left that part of childhood behind. Maybe we laugh because we see — suddenly, from the vantage point of the passing years — that growing up does not only mean we relinquish our innocence and wonder, but that we learn how to face the unknown head-on, even when we’re most afraid.