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August 20 (yesterday or earlier than that, by the time most of you read this) was National Photography Day. To mark the occasion, the surprisingly interesting and entertaining website Business Insider assembled some of the most startling and well-known Pulitzer Prize winning photos from over the years, almost all of them themselves violent or related to war, under the headline 16 Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photos That Shocked The World, If you want to see them in all their gore and glory, and read their proper captions, click the link above. If you want to think about them a bit, continue on below.
What strikes me about these photos, and what forms the basis for this essay, is that what was once considered shocking is now, mostly, not — especially not while in the midst of the protests and police violence in Ferguson, Missouri. In fact, only one of these photos — all but one of them shown in chronological order — truly retains its ability to shock and raise fury in Orange County today.
This is not the one that is still shocking.
This one might seem shocking — but if I tell you that the man about to have a bullet calmly shot into his brain was a top assassin of the native revolutionary movement, the Viet Cong, tasked with carrying out its own version of the U.S.’s “Operation Phoenix” program of assassination of South Vietnamese Army leaders and their families, recently including of Gen. Loan’s top aides and his family, perhaps you will feel differently about it. Perhaps you won’t — and, if so, good for you. But if you were ever going to make a case for summary execution, this situation would be it — at least if you favored the South Vietnamese government. A major, well-identified, brutal killer of not just enemies but their families, during a startling and crippling wartime offensive, without a realistic possibility of trial — I don’t like it, but I can understand it. And yet this photo did more than any other to break the spirit of Americans back home, because witnessing the reality of a summary execution was simply over the top.
In Orange County, in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere, this sort of thing just isn’t that shocking anymore. What ought to be shocking is the stakes. Based on witness statements consistent with autopsy reports, Michael Brown was summarily executed on the streets of Ferguson for essentially pissing off a police officer. (No, it wasn’t over his stealing cigars or having ingested marijuana sometime over the previous six weeks.) And people in Ferguson and nationwide say that he had it coming.
In Anaheim — and I’m sorry to bore you all with this but in about ten weeks it may put Orange County squarely in the news again — we have the death of a young man who had allegedly shot at police and (maybe) briefly but ineffectually threatened a family while running away. He was hid in or behind an isolated trash dumpster not that far away, where a police dog located him and gunfire rang out — very possibly entirely coming from the police, although the soon to be dead boy was morally and legally culpable — leading to the injury of that K-9 officer. And The Walt Disney Company’s favored candidate for Mayor, Lucille Kring, said that his summary execution — like what you see up there in that photo — was “a good result” and the way it should go because it “saved us the cost of a trial.” (She later retracted the statement because it looked bad. If she wins in the wake of Ferguson, it will, I promise you, look worse.)
So summary execution is not really so shocking anymore. One might expect to be shocked by summary execution when the stakes were so freaking low, very much unlike the situation faced in Vietnam, but if I inform you that one victim was an African American youth and the other one was a Latino who may have fired shots, the lack of shock might become much more understandable.
I cropped only one photo in creating this post, the one above (and below), because I think that too much attention tends to be grabbed by Kim Phuc’s naked prepubescent vulva, still the only one from a girl that age that one can safely depict in public. Kim Phuc — who is alive and well, though scarred, and still speaking out on behalf of peace in venues including Orange County — manages to be a good sport about it, but I think that cropping the photo lets you focus on the rest of it.
The Naked Girl in the Photo — and I honestly think that if you asked most Americans in their mid-50s who that referred to, they would correctly identify this photo as the source — had pulled off her clothes because they had been hit by flaming napalm, a jellied petroleum derivative capable of burning human flesh right down to the bone. The most spectacular think about this photo is that hers is not even the most striking depiction of agony within it. The boy on the left bears an expression of agony more vivid than any other I have ever seen. The Naked Girl is screaming like perhaps she wants to communicate with someone so that they can salve her pain. The Boy — the Boy is not trying to communicate with anyone. He’s just howling.
When you study drawing, you learn to sometimes flip a picture upside down to get a different perspective on it. This works in two opposing ways. As an artist, one can perceive it free of the cognitive imposition of form that usually governs our vision, the better to draw if as what it is, a collection of colors, shades, shapes, and tones. On the other hand, if you take something that truly does look inhuman and turn it upside-down, those very same cognitive frames may make it look more familiar and recognizable. So I tried that here to see whether it would look in some way more understandably within human experience.
Nope. That is an expression of agony so sharp, so stark, that nothing can change it.
What is interesting from the cropped photo, though, is looking at every other figure within it. The child between the two wounded figures is not moving so quickly that he can’t safely look behind; the pair of children to the right might best be described as “hurrying along.” But the soldiers? They’re barely moving at all, if even that. None of the five soldiers (one is far in the distance) seem at all concerned about the children in front of them — at least two in bloodcurdling agony.
In fact, if one tries to wind back time to reach the moment where the two wounded children were hit with napalm, it’s hard to imagine how this scene even came about. The can’t have been hit — accidentally, by their own country’s troops, just moments before — not with the soldiers so calm. They must have been somewhere behind the front four soldiers, though perhaps in front of the back one. That seems unlikely — but it seems almost less likely that they could have been running from perhaps far beyond the trailing soldier without the front soldiers paying more attention to them. Why aren’t they running to the soldiers for help? To whom are they running? The Girl could be running to the cameraman; the Boy is clearly running past him. To what? From where?
The children are, if it need be said, victims of aerial bombardment. Chemical weapons, not munitions; napalm where nowadays, if this were tried at all, it might be white phosphorous. This was the second of the two photos that galvanized the country to recoil from the horrors of the War in Vietnam. Would we have that same shocked reaction today? Of course we wouldn’t; look at what’s happened in Syria, what’s happening in Gaza. If there’s a shock, it’s not from young children being victims of war, but that back in the days before drones we had this thing called “saturation bombing.” (Maybe that’s why I’m less worked about about drones per se than some of my younger colleagues; I’ve seen so much worse from war photography.)
We move now from the inexplicable to the almost staged. Here, the placement of the photographer is the great untold part of the story. Government officials are trying to retrieve Elian to send him back to Cuba as required by the courts. He’s hiding with his uncle in a closet. And the photographer is — standing right near the closet, with camera at the ready, ready to take a series of rapid-fire snaps (this was the third of seven) as the closet door is opened? Way to tip them off, Alan Diaz! But let me ask a question: when the cop came into that small room, did they really think that he was not going to check the closet? If they knew that the jig was up, why not give up and let Elian come out to reach his fate in a less terrifying manner?
Here’s why: the horror of armed and militarized cops invading one’s home that this photo is supposed to invoke — while real in an increasing number of instances these days, largely involving drug busts — was probably not quite so stark in this household that day. The rifle was drawn and pointed at Elian — or rather at his uncle, but close enough — because this was the shot that they wanted. They wanted Elian screaming at the sight of the cop. Otherwise, if the cop really felt that his life was in danger, the photographer is lying on the ground. The cop may or may not have been in on it, but the uncle and the photographer were certainly in cahoots. The only thing that was unequivocally real about this photo is Elian’s terrified reaction — as befits a prop. But today, we know that this happens regularly; does such a home invasion really retain the power to shock? The only weird part was the planned part — that they had a photographer on hand to record it.
How about this one? Is this a shock — a journalist being attacked by armed government agents while practicing his trade? Would this shock the world today? No — it’s not particularly shocking. In fact, after the past week in Ferguson, Missouri, it might not even be a shock to see this photo depicting an event in the United States. And that itself is what ought to be shocking.
I promised one photo that would still shock residents of OC today, and this is the last photo, so this must be it. Here, refugees risk their lives to escape death and depredation should they remain in their homelands. Today, this would involve surviving roving bandits and drug gangs as they lay atop freight trains traveling the length of Mexico so that they could start their lives ago with some small measure of security. The shock, of course, is that after risking their lives like this to be in a better place — the country actually let them in! Shocking, from our contemporary perspective, I know. And the other shock is that so many people, many of them not long ago refugees themselves or the descendants of same, simply do not care to let others through that golden door.