Qualities held by ‘Iconic’ Wartime Images

Dr. Ellen, I recently discovered your website and have found it incredibly interesting in the research I am conducting for my journalism dissertation at University in London.

I especially found your essays on photojournalism interesting, as I am focusing on this topic. My working title for my Dissertation is: ‘An Examination of the Power of Photography as a Journalistic Tool, Through a Study of Iconic Images from The Vietnam War.’

The images that I have chosen to study are: ‘Self-immolation of a Monk, 1963,’ by Malcolm Browne, ‘Mai Lai Massacre, 1968,’ by Robert Haeberle, ‘The Execution, 1968,’ by Eddie Adams, ‘young boy discovering his dead sister, 1968’ by Philip Jones Griffiths, and ‘Napalm Attack, 1972,’ by Nick Ut.

I wonder if you have any opinions on these images as ‘iconic’ and what qualities you think an ‘iconic’ photograph holds? I would be honoured to have your thoughts on the subject I have chosen for my Dissertation.” ~Nadine

Nadine, I think of an iconic photograph from the Vietnam War era as one that has taken on value to different parties for different reasons. In other words, it has a certain social usefulness.

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The iconic photograph, such as the one above by Eddie Adams ( Saigon Execution – photograph – 1968 – Vietnam), instantly becomes a kind of visual rhetoric, similar in ways to the rhetoric of social liberalism. It is taken to stand for something that heretofore had no expressive outlet. The viewers of the iconic image are suddenly confronted and overwhelmed by the drama unfolding before their eyes because it is something they have not personally experienced.

The pain represented, the cruel act shown, the inhumane circumstances of death, the loss – these are things that non-warring citizens of the world try not to think about in their daily lives. 

But images of war are iconic for those very reasons. They mirror a level of pain and suffering that is shockingly unfamiliar to us and it is this reaction, on our part, that helps determine whether that image becomes iconic or not.

If a much larger percent of humanity had close exposure to such pain and suffering, war would no longer be acceptable. It is only acceptable so long as it happens in some distant place with designated ‘enemies’ of the state. 

Iconic wartime images are ones that further the aims of conflicting interests by becoming an emotional hot potato that is furiously passed between divergent groups: between the US Milliary or the US Government and, say, left-wing liberals who decry war. Or between the Vietcong and the US Government, etc.

But even iconic images, such as the ones you are studying, don’t always tell the whole truth.

As with any photograph, it can be cropped to project one version of reality over another. In the same vein, a color photograph will have less impact than a black and white image under special circumstances such as war.[A black and white images of war arouses more dread and angst in the viewer.] Inner city urban icons follow suit. A colorful comatose drug addict is not nearly so iconic as one depicted in some shadowy, grayscale realm.

The men whose work you are studying have by now become icons themselves. All of their photos are now iconic in the sense that they all are pieces of their larger visual portfolio of war. And we know that thematic collections have more lasting impact than more fragmented collections, i.e., collections that range widely in content and scope.]

Other photographers with less direct access to the front, or with less good timing, or who have more fragmented collections  – they may shoot similar scenes but their portfolio does not form an iconic whole. They don’t hone in on ground zero; they focus their lens more broadly, not just in war but generally. The result is they lack a cohesive body of work necessary to produce an ‘iconic’ image – even though they may have a wonderful portfolio otherwise.

Wars have produced the bulk of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers for this reason: their body of work has a looming wholeness to it.

There are other things to consider here, as well.

One wonders, for example, about governments capitalizing on an iconic image to further their political agendas. Eddie Adams in particular felt bastardized by this. He even discussed ‘The Execution, 1968’ in public venues like YouTube – as if to say that it wasn’t what it seemed. He clearly worried that he might have furthered the execution merely by being present.

It is an interesting thought because he was the only photojournalist in attendance; others photographers were asked but decided not to respond to the invitation to attend that particular event.

Yet his image suddenly took on a life of its own, such that some claim it signaled the end of the war.

Political agendas inevitably underscore iconic images of this nature and, because of it, they can and do distort the circumstances surround the image. The image becomes an integral part of ‘group think’ which is a dysfunctional process at best, and which almost always characterizes high-anxiety situations.

I would also say this about exceptional wartime photographers: they very likely brought certain depressive sensibilities with them to the front. They understood angst better than others if angst somehow also characterized their own lives. If they had already suffered cumulative loss, they knew loss more intimately than those who had not suffered it; and they therefore responded to it differently. And their photographs therefore had more potency.

Thus, the uniqueness of the photographer’s trek through life to date lends credibility, or not, to his or her wartime work. These same kinds of things underscore all artists to one degree or another, including writers. 

So if I were doing a study such as yours, Nadine, I would broaden my focus to include the person who depressed the shutter button, not just their images themselves.

Nothing happens in a vacuum, we are all interconnected; and what fails for one, serves another.

Some wonderful photographs are just ‘snaps worth remembering” – i.e., they capture zenith moments in time that represent intersecting cultures, or a past culture that no longer is. They stick with us like so many U.S. photos from the mid-to-late 40’s stick with us. These post-war photographs celebrated WW II successes back home and were urgently needed by Americans tired of that long wartime experience.

We remember those images with bittersweetness, those of us who had parents in that era of American life, and the images are even more famous today than they were back then. But are they iconic? Not in the sense that Vietnam War era photographs were iconic, no; but then they aren’t used as political footballs, either.

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