Why is the photo of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez on a yacht so compelling?

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Helen, I am seeing an image on the internet that reminds me of a time long, long ago, but I can’t quite put my finger on what it means.

You must be talking about singer, songwriter, actor, fragrance mogul and philanthropist Jennifer Lopez’s 52nd birthday pics and in particular, the piece de resistance: Ben Affleck affectionately touching butt.

That’s the one. Why does it give me a sense of deja vu?

Well firstly, it is familiar to you because it is a recreation of a scene in J Lo’s 2002 music video for the song Jenny from the Block, in which Lopez argues that despite her success and considerable material wealth, she is still the same down to earth woman who grew up in Castle Hill, the Bronx.

The lyrics include the lines: “Can’t forget to stay real / to me it’s like breathing”; “I stay grounded as the amounts roll in”; and “Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got / I’m still (I’m still) Jenny from the block”.

The music video is a stream of images made to look like paparazzi footage. In one scene, Affleck strokes Lopez’s butt adoringly as they sail on a yacht.

Art critic John Berger teaches us that a photograph “isolates, preserves, and presents a moment taken from a continuum”. In this case, that continuum begins with Affleck and Lopez’s relationship, starting in 2002. In 2003, they called their wedding off with just days to go, due to “excessive media attention”. This is poignant because: see above music video. In 2004, they broke up. But in April this year, nearly two decades later, their romance was rekindled (though it only became Instagram official this weekend).

I don’t normally care about pictures of celebrity couples, so why does this one warm my heart?

Because it encapsulates hope.

We can pretend, for a brief moment, that all the bad things that have happened since 2002 – the great recession, Trump, Brexit, Covid – didn’t actually happen at all. Lopez’s body has not aged. She is with Affleck, about whom she sang – on the album that included Jenny from the Block – “I love you, you’re perfect / A manifestation of my dreams / … / You will always be / My lust, my love, my man, my child, my friend, and my king.”

2002 was also the year Ben Affleck won People Magazine’s sexiest man alive. What has he been up to since then?

It’s a long, sad story, so I’ll focus on recent events. In late 2019, he started dating actress Ana D’Armas. This was arguably the beginning of a comeback from many, many years of messy sadness. But the relationship itself was short-lived. They broke up in January this year. The artefacts of this relationship included a life-sized cutout of the actress that someone was seen throwing out, and a photo of Affleck drinking from a Dunkin Donuts cup balanced on top of several packages.

Wait, tell me more about the messy sadness.

If I may return to Berger: a “great artist is a man whose life-time is consumed by struggle: partly against material circumstances, partly against incomprehension, partly against himself.”

In no artist who has ever lived is this more clearly represented than in Benjamin Affleck. He is the poster-boy for smoking and being sad. He has done this while wearing a face-mask over just his nose, with one hand in his pocket and his eyes closed, inhaling, as the Cut put it, “through the pain of his existence”, and while looking thin, on a balcony. He is also sad when he vapes.

He has stared out at the sea while wearing a towel high up on his torso, and turned around and started trying again. “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster,” wrote Nietzsche. Affleck has gazed into the abyss, but he looked away before it could gaze back at him.

“Every exceptional work was the result of a prolonged successful struggle,” wrote Berger. “The phoenix must burn to rise from the ashes”, wrote someone on Twitter. Affleck walked so we could run.

What does the Bennifer image mean to you, personally?

For me, it is all about J Lo. The photo of the pair together is part of a series of pics from her birthday and in the others, she shows off her insane body. I am seven months pregnant and the chances of me having anything close to an ab any time soon are zero. And yet, J Lo makes me feel like it is all too possible, some day. Unrealistic expectations? Well, they’re real. She’s real. “I thought I told you,” etc.

So, is it art?

I leave you with this: “The uniqueness of the original now lies in it being the original of a reproduction. It is no longer what its image shows that strikes one as unique; its first meaning is no longer to be found in what it says, but in what it is.”

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