The power of the iconic

Kaye Davis dis­cusses the im­por­tance of pho­to­jour­nal­ism and the im­ages that will stand the test of time to com­mu­ni­cate their mes­sages

The Shed - - Column -

From the mil­lions and mil­lions of pho­to­graphs ever cap­tured, there are only a very few that are her­alded as iconic. The word ‘iconic’, as de­fined by the on­line Cam­bridge English Dic­tio­nary, refers to some­thing “very fa­mous or pop­u­lar, es­pe­cially be­ing con­sid­ered to rep­re­sent par­tic­u­lar opin­ions or a par­tic­u­lar time”.

A quick Google search will re­veal the im­ages through­out his­tory that have been iden­ti­fied as iconic. What each one of th­ese pho­to­graphs has in com­mon with the oth­ers is the pow­er­ful story be­hind it. It’s pos­si­bly not a co­in­ci­dence then, that the pho­to­graphic sto­ry­tellers of truth, the pho­to­jour­nal­ists and doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phers, have cap­tured all but a few of those im­ages — the iconic pho­to­graphs por­tray­ing world events founded on both hu­man achieve­ment and hu­man tragedy.

At the time of re­lease, each of th­ese im­ages be­came em­bed­ded in our minds, and when re­mem­ber­ing or re­vis­it­ing them years or decades later, their sto­ries are just as pow­er­ful (and poignant) as when they were first seen. Such is the power of the pho­to­graph.

How many can re­call the 1972 im­age of a young, naked Viet­namese girl run­ning down the road? Kim Phuc (aged nine at the time), with a group of other ter­ri­fied chil­dren, seen in agony, flee­ing from the site of a na­palm at­tack, hav­ing torn her burn­ing clothes off. This im­age, by Nick Ut, be­came a sym­bol of the hor­rors as­so­ci­ated with the war in Viet­nam, and Phuc’s per­sonal suf­fer­ing and tragedy be­came the marker for turn­ing pub­lic opin­ion on the war, the im­age later win­ning Ut a Pulitzer Prize. What is per­haps not so well known is that two of Phuc’s lit­tle cousins died in­stantly in the bomb­ing. Phuc her­self, suf­fer­ing from third-de­gree burns to over half her body, was sub­se­quently res­cued by Ut, who took her to hos­pi­tal along with the other chil­dren. So bad were her burns that the doc­tors didn’t ex­pect her to live. But live she did, spend­ing 14 months in hos­pi­tal and many months more of on­go­ing treat­ment. Ut, whose im­age that day marked a turn­ing point in many lives, of­ten vis­ited Phuc in hos­pi­tal and also went on to set up a fund for her fam­ily.

A se­cond im­age that will strike a chord with many is Kevin Carter’s 1993 pho­to­graph of the lit­tle girl and the vul­ture. He trav­elled to the Su­dan to doc­u­ment the rebel move­ment, and the trip ended with an im­age that epit­o­mized the suf­fer­ing of the famine-stricken re­gion. Fly­ing into the vil­lage of Ayod, in the Su­dan, Carter was con­fronted by many starv­ing peo­ple. Wan­der­ing into open bush, he heard whim­per­ing and came across the lit­tle girl. As he was about to pho­to­graph her, a vul­ture landed be­hind her. He took his pho­to­graphs and chased the bird away. Lit­tle did he re­al­ize the turn of events that would even­tu­ate when The New York Times pur­chased and pub­lished his im­age. Many read­ers wrote in and crit­i­cized ‘the pho­tog­ra­pher’ for tak­ing the pho­to­graph and not do­ing more to help. The im­age, in 1994, saw Carter awarded with a Pulitzer Prize but also led him on a down­hill spiral. The in­ner tur­moil he felt from all he had seen and doc­u­mented in his life as a pho­to­jour­nal­ist be­came too much, and, only a few months af­ter re­ceiv­ing his prize, Carter com­mit­ted sui­cide.

The im­age that sparked this ar­ti­cle was seen early in Septem­ber, from an in­ci­dent which cre­ated world­wide out­cry, and is now likely to be added to the list of iconic pho­to­graphs. I’m talk­ing about the photo of the lit­tle Syr­ian boy washed up on the Turk­ish beach, drowned af­ter the boat he and his fam­ily were in cap­sized on its way to the Greek is­land of Kos, a tragic and heart­break­ing end for a des­per­ate fam­ily seek­ing a life away from war. Again it is a sin­gle, pow­er­ful im­age, telling the story of a refugee cri­sis that has stirred na­tions around the world into ac­tion, prompt­ing in­di­vid­u­als and gov­ern­ments alike to of­fer their sup­port.

Ev­ery day we are con­fronted with im­ages that chal­lenge us emo­tion­ally, both on a per­sonal level and as a so­ci­ety. In New Zealand, we are very much re­moved from ‘feel­ing’ what many oth­ers suf­fer on a daily ba­sis. It is only through such strong im­ages like those men­tioned here that we be­come aware of, and can in some way gain in­sight into, the plight of oth­ers. We should not crit­i­cize those who cap­ture the pho­to­graphs; we should ap­plaud them for bring­ing th­ese is­sues to our at­ten­tion. Haunt­ing im­ages are in­tended to stir us into ac­tion.

I was again re­minded of this when re­cently vis­it­ing 50 Great­est Pho­to­graphs of Na­tional Geo­graphic, cur­rently show­ing at Te Manawa in Palmer­ston North — one of only two cen­tres in New Zealand to hold the ex­hi­bi­tion. While many of the im­ages are quite light-hearted, oth­ers are not.

As part of this ex­hi­bi­tion, the gallery has a col­lage of all the pho­to­graphs, and vis­i­tors are in­vited to write their thoughts on Post-it notes and place them on top of the im­ages — re­sult­ing in heart­felt words from young and old. Even though many of th­ese pho­tos date back decades, it would seem they still res­onate in peo­ple’s hearts and minds. For well over a cen­tury, pho­tog­ra­phy and the pho­tog­ra­phers who cap­ture th­ese sto­ries have given us the op­por­tu­nity to see and learn about the plight of oth­ers in a very pow­er­ful way.

Iconic im­ages, which are of­ten haunt­ing, are in­tended to stir our emo­tions, and it is through such pow­er­ful and mov­ing im­ages that we gain knowl­edge of and un­der­stand­ing about the world around us.

For le­gal and copy­right pur­poses, we are un­able to pub­lish the im­ages dis­cussed, but they can be viewed on­line: Nick Ut’s im­age can be found at apim­, and Kevin Carter’s can be found at cor­bisim­

If you hap­pen to be vis­it­ing Palmer­ston North, or per­haps it’s time to make a spe­cial trip, the 50 Great­est Pho­to­graphs of Na­tional Geo­graphic ex­hi­bi­tion runs un­til Novem­ber 1, 2015, and is well worth see­ing — I will visit it again.

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