Sunday, August 21, 2011

Burning Images

How much information does a photograph really give you? Is it the "truth," only a piece of the truth, or is it staged for a planned effect? When we look at pictures of news events, do we know more about what's happening than if we had just read about it, or do we, ironically, know less? Does it alter how we feel about what's happening? And can the fact that a camera is around actually change events?

In my last post on photography, I ended a list of pictures that made a difference in how people viewed the world with Nick Ut's 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phúc fleeing from her Vietnamese village. The US-allied South Vietnamese Air Force had just bombed there, first with explosives, then with napalm, a flammable liquid which causes severe burns because it adheres to human skin. Kim Phúc had ripped off all her clothes, trying to stop the burning.

Anyone old enough to have read newspapers in 1972 remembers the photo. It is impossible to get that child's agony out of your head. The facial expression of the boy running in front of Kim Phúc is almost a mask of horror. It is Edvard Munch's The Scream brought to life. And as heartbreaking as the picture was, the worst part was realizing that our allies were responsible for what happened.

Which meant we were responsible for what happened.

Many people view the publication of that photo as a turning point in the war, the moment when Americans could no longer turn away from the suffering we were causing in Vietnam. On tape, President Nixon even opined that the photo was altered in some way to turn people against the war.

But did the picture really change the way Americans saw the war?

By 1972, the United States had been embroiled in Vietnam for more than twenty years. By 1963, there were 16,000 U.S. military advisors there. American combat troops had been in Vietnam since 1965, and the number of troops peaked at half a million. Like most wars, it began with public support, but by 1971 (the last time Gallup asked the question) support for the war was down to 28%.

It's unlikely, therefore, that the photo changed very many people's minds. But it intensified the objections to the war that most Americans already had. It turned intellectual objections to the war into emotional ones. And what we feel is often more important than what we know.

Nick Ut's iconic photo may not have changed the way Americans viewed Vietnam, but to a large extent, more than a decade's worth of photographs (along with television images) told Americans everything they knew about the place. In the sixties, a relatively small percentage of Americans could have told you where Vietnam was, how we got involved there, or even who, exactly, was fighting whom. What we knew about the war was mostly what we saw.

Vietnam was called the first television war, but it was also the most photographed war. Photojournalists had never before had the kind of access to battlefields they had in Vietnam, and they haven't had it since. I think most people who are old enough to remember Vietnam believe they know more about that war than any other war in their lifetimes. But most of what we "know" comes from photographs.

One of the first news photos I remember seeing was Malcolm Browne's portrait of a Buddhist monk immolating himself in Saigon, in 1963, to protest the US-supported Vietnamese government's persecution of Buddhists. What does the photo tell the observer about Vietnam? Not much, really. But I remember being haunted by that picture as a child, as I suspect many older Americans were. You wonder what someone must have endured to believe that it was necessary to subject himself to such a horrible death in order to call attention to the injustice. After you look at the photograph, you don't know any more about the political or religious situation in Vietnam than you did before you saw the photo, but it leaves you with a vague sense that this was a place where the government did horrible things to its own people, which is not something you want your own country to be involved in.

Over the years, more photos would add to the unease.

After the photo of Kim Phúc, probably the most famous picture from the war in Vietnam is Eddie Adams' picture of a South Vietnamese general executing a Viet Cong prisoner on the streets of Saigon in 1968. What do you see when you look at the photo? First you see what looks like terror on the prisoner's face. It is actually the moment the bullet entered his head. Next, in contrast, you see the apparent calmness and rigidity -- or is it sheer brutality? -- of the general, and the horrified reaction of the helmeted soldier just past the general's shoulder. As the New York Times noted in its obituary of Eddie Adams in 2004, the picture "galvanized a growing antiwar sentiment in the United States" because it "reinforced a widespread belief that the South Vietnamese and American military were doing more harm than good in trying to win the war against an indigenous insurgency and the North Vietnamese army that sponsored it."

In simpler terms, the photo made Americans wonder why we were helping the South Vietnamese government -- represented by the pistol-wielding general -- kill its own people.

Ironically, the photographer didn't see it this way at all. He pointed out that the prisoner in the picture had recently murdered a friend of his executioner's, along with many other people. Adams considered the general a hero, and was shocked by Americans' reaction to his photo.

Who was right -- the photographer or the viewers?

I don't think there's an easy answer to that question. But it raises the issue of how much "truth" there is in any photo.

Another issue with Eddie Adams photograph is to what extent it was staged. In a book on the visual representation of war and violence, Regarding The Pain of Others, Susan Sontag argued that the execution would never have taken place at all if were not for the presence of cameras, that the photographer, and indeed the viewer, share in the "indecency" of that act. General Loan executed his Viet Cong captive as an act of terrorism -- a warning to other Viet Cong and their supporters, showing how they would be treated. In that bit of frightening theater, he had the complicity of the press.

In fact, the same argument could be made about the portrait of Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk. Malcolm Browne, the photographer, said that his photo was "clearly theater staged by the Buddhists to achieve a certain political end," and that he still had some sense of guilt about his role in the suicide:
I've been asked a couple times whether I could have prevented the suicide. I could not. There was a phalanx of perhaps two hundred monks and nuns who were ready to block me if I tried to move. A couple of them chucked themselves under the wheels of a fire truck that arrived. But in the years since, I've had this searing feeling of perhaps having in some way contributed to the death of a kind old man who probably would not have done what he did — nor would the monks in general have done what they did — if they had not been assured of the presence of a newsman who could convey the images and experience to the outer world. Because that was the whole point — to produce theater of the horrible so striking that the reasons for the demonstrations would become apparent to everyone.
It's a difficult issue. Photojournalists often take photos of horrible suffering. Is their obligation simply to record the story, and let the world decide what to do about it, or do they have some obligation to try to stop the suffering? And, in many cases, do they bear some responsibility for the suffering? Are they pawns in the creation of torture and death?

I should note that the balance between telling the story and stopping the pain was quite different in the case of Nick Ut and Kim Phúc. Immediately after taking the photo, Nick Ut got Kim Phúc and several other children into his car, and drove them to a hospital. Because the doctors thought she had little chance of survival, they were ready to move on to other, less severely wounded patients, but Nick Ut insisted they try to save her, and leveraged the fact that he had a photo he knew would soon be on the front pages of newspapers around the world to emphasize her importance. In fact, he didn't leave the hospital to bring his photo to the Associated Press until Kim Phúc was on the operating table. There is almost no doubt she would have died without his intervention. She was in the hospital for more than a year, and Nick Ut visited her regularly. Astonishingly, she survived, and twenty years later emigrated to Canada, where she lives today, working as for UNESCO as a peace and human rights advocate.

In this case, the photographer saved one life. And while his photo probably didn't change Americans' ideas about the war, it changed feelings. It made the determination to get out stronger. Therefore, the photograph, by helping end the war, may have saved many more lives than Kim Phúc's.


Domenico Maceri said...

I was very surprised to read the photographer saw the general as a hero. Of course, the picture alone conveys a different image. But as you said, you need to know the background surrounding the picture to fully grasp its real and complete (sometimes still incomplete) meaning.

David Edward Martin said...

I don't see the general as a hero or villain but as a man just getting an unwelcome task out of the way. I've seen the 16mm sequence. The general was tired from having just dealt with the deaths the prisoners had helped cause. There is a bit of a shrug and a sigh, then he pulls out his gun and fires, then goes on with his job without a second glance.

As I recall, he emigrated to North America and opened a restaurant.