Dead In The Digital World: The Demise Of The Iconic Image
In the past news photographers dreamt of taking that one iconic frame during their career that would transcend time and remain a testament to history. I have taken hundreds of thousands of images over the course of my career, and even though some of them catapulted me briefly into the spotlight, none ever made it into the cherished category.
Since the inception of photography nearly 175 years ago, there have been numerous photographs that have stood the test of time. The earliest one that comes to mind is Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s “Battle of Gettysburg,” which shows dead Confederate soldiers strewn across the battlefield with three people in the distance surveying the devastation. This haunting image was one of the first to capture the horrors of war.
Up until the end of the 19th century, photography was relatively static because of the time it took to set up the camera. Things slowly began to change at the beginning of the 20th century with the introduction of smaller cameras. However, it wasn’t until Ernest Leitz introduced the first high-quality 35mm Leica in 1924 that news photography began to come into its own. The compact 35mm camera freed photographers from awkward and often cumbersome equipment, and allowed them to get close to the action, which resulted in far more compelling images.
Robert Capa’s iconic image, “Death of a Loyalist Soldier,” taken in 1936, at the beginning of the Spanish civil war, is the first photograph that actually captured the moment of death on the battlefield. However, the photo is not without controversy. Some historians doubt the authenticity of the picture and claim there is evidence to suggest that Capa actually “staged” the photograph. After the Spanish Civil War, Capa went on to cover World War II, where he created yet another iconic image, the D-Day landing at Omaha, Beach in Normandy. Controversy aside, Capa remains one of the giants of photojournalism.
Robert Capa was on assignment for Life magazine when he landed on the beaches of Normandy with the first wave of U.S. marines. At the time, Life was the crème de la crème of magazines and a stepping-stone for any photographer who wanted to become noticed.
Up until the Internet revolution, Americans relied on magazines such as Life, Time and Newsweek for in-depth analysis, but also as a venue to view the very best in news photography. Time and Newsweek were actually the only foreign English publications available in Egypt when I lived there during the 1980s and 1990s. Both magazines remained on my coffee table at home for the entire week and were only removed when the new issues arrived. Anyone who sat on the couch would inevitably pick up one of the magazines and thumb through the pages looking at the photographs. Occasionally a photo would jump out, hit a nerve and spark a discussion. That was the power of the print media back then.
Press photographers of my generation dreamed of getting published in Time and Newsweek, the same way that photographers from Capa’s generation dreamed of getting published in Life. I will never forget the gratification I felt the first time one of my photos appeared in the pages of Time. The photo that showed Jimmy Carter standing before the tomb of assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, appeared on the inside pages and on the upper right hand corner of the cover. Although the photo was nothing special, the idea that I was finally published in Time made me feel as though I had made it to the big league.
What constitutes an iconic photograph? To me, it is a single image that captures the story. The Associated Press photographer Nick Ut took such a picture in 1972 during the Vietnam War that will forever be a testament to the atrocities carried out by the Americans against the Vietnamese. The photograph shows a young terrified Vietnamese girl running naked after being burned in a napalm strike on her village. The photo is so powerful that I still cringe when I look at the agony on the girl’s face. That, to me, is an iconic image.
Steve McCurry’s National Geographic cover photo of the Afghan girl taken at a refugee camp in Pakistan in 1984 is another such image for different reasons. Her piercing green eyes staring straight out of the cover had such a profound impact on readers that, 17 years later, McCurry was sent back by the magazine to try and find her again, which he did. I actually met Steve in Iraq during the 2003 war, a year after National Geographic published the follow-up story, and when I asked him what it was like to meet her again after all these years, he said, “the experience was humbling.”
McCurry was not alone in reconnecting with the very subject that made him famous. After taking the photograph of 9-year-old, Kim Phuc, Ut picked her up and took her in his car to a small hospital where the staff refused to treat her believing she was beyond help. Ut then used his press credentials to pressure them to take her. In the end his efforts paid off and to this day Ut keeps in regular contact with Kim Phuc, who is now 50, married with children and living in Canada.
In 1999, I had the opportunity to assist legendary Pulitzer Prize-winner Eddie Adams while he was working on a book in Egypt, shortly before he passed away. I asked him about his iconic photo of a South Vietnamese police officer executing a Viet Cong prisoner on the streets of Saigon in 1968. When published, that photo ignited the flames of the anti-war movement, as it put into question the moral role that the U.S. was playing by siding with the South Vietnamese. Even though the photo won Adams a Pulitzer Prize, he didn’t agree with the uproar it caused back in the States. He told me that the reason why Brig. Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executed the prisoner was because the latter had just killed Loan’s best friend, along with his entire family.
Loan was relocated to the United States after the war and Adam’s continued to be in contact with him and even attended Loan’s funeral at the family’s request years later.
These iconic photographs not only had great impact on the public, but they also were a life-changing experience for many of the photographers who took them.
The weekly news magazines that once graced our coffee tables, dentist offices and hotel lobbies have nearly all but disappeared. After 80 years on the newsstands, Newsweek finally terminated its print edition on the Dec. 31, 2012. I won’t be surprised if Time follows suit in the coming years.
I have no doubt that the iconic images of the past 100 years will survive and remain testaments to history. What I fear now and in the future is that it will be harder to find a single photograph to capture a story, just because of the sheer amount of imagery that we are bombarded with on a daily basis.
We now live in a digitalized world dominated by Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, YouTube and countless other social media sites that provide real-time coverage of events happening around the world. Gone are the days of a single image emblazoned in people’s minds as a symbol of a great moment in history.
Still photography will continue to have an impact, but in a different way. Instead of the single image, we will remember events through a combination of both videos and photographs. When I reflect back on the 2003 war in Iraq; Afghanistan; the Arab Spring and what is happening now in Syria, I cannot recall one single photograph that sticks out as representative of the conflict but rather a collage of dramatic imagery taken by both professionals and citizen journalists alike using different visual media to tell the story.
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