The Power Of A Photograph
I love photography. I love its ability to convey emotions better than any other medium. A truly great photograph leaves no doubt about the message that is being sent. There is a universality that transcends the colored dots on the print or the pixels on the computer screen. Sometimes, context is needed to better understand the full impact, but, even without context, the message is unmistakable.
I will talk about my "favorite" message photograph in a moment, but let's look at two in which the message is direct and indisputable. Favorite is in quotes because the photos are not necessarily happy pictures. Favorite usually connotes my favorite candy or sports team. That is not the case here.
The first photograph is Kevin Carter's 1993 Pulitzer Prize winning picture The Vulture and The Little Girl or The Struggling Girl.
The picture requires no explanation, except perhaps that the child is a little boy, not a girl, but that does not change the fact that the little one is clearly starving and close to death. The vulture's goal is obvious. The picture was first published in the New York Times in March of 1993 and it created an immediate and powerful reaction. Organizations began successfully using the photograph to raise money for refugee relief.
The events that led to the picture are described in the 1988 book, the Bang-Bang Club. Carter, who was South African, was a documentary photographer. He made a name for himself as part of a group of four South African photographers, who became known as the BangBang Club, who documented the bloody and gruesome battle between Inkatha and the African National Congress for political control of South Africa after the end of Apartheid.
Carter took the picture outside a United Nations feeding center in South Sudan. The 1993 South Sudan famine killed 20,000 people and created over 100,000 refugees. It was only one of many famines that has ravaged the area over many years, it was compounded by further famines in 1998, when an estimated 70,000 people died, and in 2017.
As he tells the story, he heard a child whimpering and went to investigate. The child was trying to make it to the feeding center. As he took the photograph a the vulture landed behind the emaciated boy. The boy did make it to the feeding center and survived. He died 14 years later from malaria.
The photograph won Carter the 1994 Pulitzer Prize. He was 33. The award created a fire storm among Carter's peers concerning whether Carter took actions to save the little boy. Two months after receiving the award, Carter, an emotionally fragile drug abuser, committed suicide.
The Vulture and the Little Girl speaks to more than the 1993 South Sudan famine. Rather, the story it tells relates to any famine anywhere or at anytime. The symbolism of the vulture waiting for the little boy cries out for a response to the events that led to the young, helpless and emaciated child being on the verge of death . It grabs at your soul and commands a response. It is impossible to look at the picture without being emotionally affected.
The second photograph is quite different than the first but equally impactful. It was taken by war war photographer Joe Rosenthal in 1945 as the American Flag over was raised on the
summit of Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima.
Rosenthal, because of his poor eyesight, was rejected by the Army as a photographer. He instead covered the Pacific War as a photographer for the Associated Press. In the process he accompanied the Army and Marines as they fought their way through the islands of the Pacific. He documented the battles at Hollandia, New Guinea, Guam, Peleliu, Angaur, and Iwo Jima. He was posthumously awarded the Navy's Distinguished Public Service Award in 2008. He received the award
[f]or exceptionally distinguished public service in support of the United States Navy and Marine Corps. On February 23, 1945, a bespectacled Mr. Rosenthal made a picture of five U.S. Marines and one U.S. Navy corpsman that immortalized the American Fighting spirit during World War II and became an everlasting symbol of service and sacrifice, transcending art and the ages. Mr. Rosenthal's poor eyesight prohibited him from serving in the armed services, so, he instead went to war summoning the craft he had practiced since the Great Depression. He bravely accompanied island-hopping forces in the Pacific as a civilian news photographer. On Iwo Jima, Japan, short of breath from climbing the 546-foot volcano, Mr. Rosenthal, in haste, stood on top of shaky rocks in search of the best graphic composition. As the six men hoisted an iron pole and the American flag unfurled in a smart breeze for all to see, Mr. Rosenthal captured the precise moment, unaware, until much later, of its significance. Since that very day, his iconic photo has stood as a testament to the perseverance, esprit and dedication of American Marines. In recognition of his own service and dedication, Mr. Rosenthal is posthumously awarded the Department of the Navy Distinguished Public Service Award.
Iwo Jima was a small piece of volcanic rubble that was stuck in the Pacific Ocean. Had it not been for World War II and the need for an air base, neither Rosenthal, nor most of America, would ever have heard of it. Rosenthal, along with thousands of Marines, landed on the island in February of 1945, where they were met by 21,000 Japanese soldiers who bitterly opposed the landing. The Japanese had heavily fortified the island with an interlocking network of tunnels, hidden artillery positions and bunkers. Of the 21,000 Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima, only 216 were taken prisoner.
Mount Suribachi was the tallest point on the island and offered a commanding view for Japanese troops and artillery. It was honeycombed with caves and fortified defensive positions. It took five days of vicious fighting for the Marines to capture Mount Suribachi. A small American flag was quickly raised to signal that the summit had been captured. To inspire the Marines who were still fighting to capture the rest of the island, six Marines and one Navy Corpsman raised a bigger flag. Rosenthal recalled that “[t]he wind just whipped the flag out over the heads of the group, and at their feet the disrupted terrain and the broken stalks of the shrubbery exemplified the turbulence of war.”
The photograph became an instant sensation and is the only photograph to win the Pulitzer Prize in the same year that it was taken. It was made into a postage stamp and was the model for the 100-ton bronze Marine Memorial outside Arlington National Cemetery.
The power of the picture was so much more than its depiction of a part of a battle to capture one of the many islands that were fought over in the Pacific War. The photograph depicted American resolve and commitment to emerge victorious from a long bloody war. It was a symbol of who we were as a nation and of the sacrifices that had been and would be made to endure. In some ways, it became the symbolic portrait of what is best about America.
What makes it different, though but no less powerful, than The Vulture and the Little Girl, is the need for context. To really understand the impact of the flag raising, there is a need to know some history of the events leading up to that moment captured by the photograph. That is not so for The Vulture and the Little Girl.
The last picture that I am going to discuss is my favorite message photograph. For me, it speaks so loudly that it does what millions of written words have not been able to do. The photograph explains, summarized and epitomizes the barbarity and hatred of Nazi Germany. The picture, taken in 1933 by then Associated Press photographer Alfred
Eisenstaedt, is entitled The Eyes of Hate.
Eisenstaedt was born in Western Prussia in 1898. His family was Jewish and he emigrated to the United States in 1935. In 1936, he, along with photography giants Margaret Bourke-White and Robert Capa, became the original staff photographers for Life Magazine. Eisenstadt is the creator of a number of iconic photographs, the perhaps best known among them being of an American sailor grabbing and kissing a young woman on V-J day in Times Square.
The subject of The Eyes That Hate was Adolph Hitler's Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. He was a virulent anti-Semite who repeatedly urged Hitler to take strong, violent actions against German Jews. He helped write some of Hitler's most hateful speeches, including the 1939 speech where Hitler revealed his Final Solution for European Jewry. In that speech, Hitler promised that
[i]f international finance Jewry in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the bolshevization of the earth and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!
After being informed of the plan to implement the Final Solution, Goebbels wrote in his diary that "[i]n general, it can probably be established that 60 per cent of them will have to be liquidated, while only 40 per cent can be put to work. ... A judgment is being carried out on the Jews which is barbaric but thoroughly deserved," After the suicide of Hitler, Goebbels followed suit, after making sure that his wife and children also swallowed cyanide capsules.
In The Eyes That Hate. Goebbels reveals the rabid anti-semite to the Jewish photographer who had photographed him several times before. In each of those prior photographs, Goebbels was smiling and in a good mood. It was only after Goebbels discovered that Eisenstadt was Jewish that his jovial mood instantly changed. It was only after Goebbels discovered that Eisenstadt was Jewish that his jovial mood instantly changed.
There are many photographs that show the barbarity of Nazi Germany, from stills of emaciated prisoners in striped clothes to video footage of decaying bodies at the death camps. Still, although these pictures are horrifying, they are also in a way detached from reality. They do not connect the events to the perpetrators. They scream of the events but only indirectly whisper at the criminals that carried them out.
The Eyes of Hate connects the two. Even if you were unaware of who Goebbels was and what his role in the barbarity of the Nazis had been, you would know that he was a hateful and evil man. It would not be a problem believing that it was a picture of a serial killer. When the Goebbels in the photograph is connected with the history of the Nazis the barbarity becomes easier to understand.
Though it is unlikely that Eisenstadt in 1933 knew what the future of Europe would hold, Goebbels’ reaction to learning that Eisenstadt was Jewish was a harbinger of the slaughter to come. That evil stare is terrifying and it personalizes, gives a face to and bears witness against the men who carried out the multiple crimes of the Nazis