Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Photos in the past repeating themselves

The end of war

California, March 17th, 1973. Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm goes back home and reunites with his family after months of captivity in Vietnam. He was a prisoner of war, and his presence in this photograph coincided with the cease-fire. That and a Pulitzer Prize made it the best icon for the end of the worst North American war in the 20th century. 35 years later the scene is back along with the Iraq war, now carrying the colours of presumptive modernity and development. Different characters. Same hypocrisy. Leading role for the mass media propaganda in an attempt to chip away the significance of an impossible war through the usual resort to tears. It’s the well-known “Soldier Surprise“.  

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When flying is the only way out

July 22nd, 1975. Boston. USA. An appartment building is about to collapse after being at the mercy of flames for several hours. Some people still remain on the top floors. Diana Bryant, a young mother in despair, takes refuge with her child on the unstable fire escape. The heated up structure gives way and falls. The woman passes away a few weeks later. Her body lessens the impact for her daughter and she survives. Stanley Forman, a journalist for Boston Herald, was there to immortalize the flight with another Pulitzer Prize. February 4th, 2008. Ludwigshafen, Germany. A fire eats away an old building with immigrants on the outskirts of town. The smoke consumes its occupants’ oxygen, so they decide to evacuate the youngest in a quick way. A 20-month-old baby flies in search of the firemen’s blanket. Five adults and four children died. The stories are evoked in the memory.

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Toy cannons
June 1967. Israel. Six-Day War. A group of children play war with the remains of a Syrian tank which had been broken down just a few hours ago by the Israeli preventive attack that put an end to the threats from the coalition between Syria and Egypt. As if that war was meant to pass by the quick way, those games are carried out with the thrill of those who find themselves fortunate in their ignorance. Summer 1982. Beirut. Lebanon. The war split the city in two. Muslims and Christians share out lands and hatred. Israel has invaded the city and destroyed the anti-aircraft defenses. Ironically, the Lebanese children play the same game as their invaders’ children, 15 years earlier. History repeats itself.

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The tree of death
1915, World War I. Germany. Picture from the National Archives of The Netherlands in The Hague. A German soldier lies on a tree top, victim of an Allies’ counter-ambush. 1937. Teruel. Spanish Civil War. A republican soldier is knocked down on a tree while fixing the improvised electrical installation. His lifeless body is immortalized by a soon-to-be famous Hungarian photographer. Robert Capa (Andre Friedman).

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Occupation: Hero
July 24th, 1915. Chicago. The SS Eastland, a one-year old majestic passenger ship, is about to sail across the Chicago River towards Lake Michigan in one of its many touristic journeys. It didn’t go further than twenty feet. The ship rolled onto its side due to a flaw in the design of its center of gravity combined with the additional weight for the scheduled tour. It crushed tens of canoeists and little curious boats, and trapped its passengers. 844 people drowned. In the photograph one of the harbor’s firemen carries the body of a baby drowned in the disaster. His face says it all. April 19th, 1995. Oklahoma City. The worst terrorist attack in the US until the 11th of September 2001. Timothy McVeigh, an unbalanced ex marine kills 168 people and wounds another 500 with a truck bomb in front of the Federal building. In this historical image, Chris Fields, a firemen carries an injured baby to medical care after getting him out of the debris. The picture went around the world after winning a Pulitzer in 1996.

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No bullets but flowers
October 21st, 1967. Flower Power. Washington march to the Pentagon against the hackneyed Vietnam war. No covered faces, no war paint; only flowers and colored balloons. Some thousands of soldiers set up a barricade at the door of the Department of Defense. George Harris, an eighteen-year-old New Yorker, ‘jams’ the barrels with carnations. Bernie Boston‘s photo was ignored by the press until it had won several pacifist contests. November 24th, 2004. Kiev. Ukraine presidential elections Outside the presidential palace a woman imitates an old gesture on the government’s human shield to contain the opposition in fear of an uprising resulting from the tight electoral outcome. Reuters photographer Vasily Fedosenjo took the photographic proof by way of the past.

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Tears on the common grave
April 1969. A South Vietnamese woman weeps over the loss of his husband before he’s buried in a common grave in the city of Hue. Photojournalist Horst Fass captures the young woman’s helplessness in one of the toughest photo-denunciation journalistic reports of that war. December 16th, 1989. Protests in the streets of Timisoara in Romania against food scarcity and Nicholai Ceausescu‘s dictatorship. The people’s uprising puts an end to the communist dictator, who was executed only a week later. After the storm, western journalists were invited to admire the regime’s deeds. Tens of common graves in Timisoara were emptied to identify the corpses. In one of them, photographer Robert Mass captured a man’s endless sorrow over whom he thought was his child.

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From night to day in a flash
July 26th, 1941. Moscow. The German airforce –Luftwaffe– bombed the Kremlin, somewhat suddenly. US painter and photographer Margaret Bourke-White worked in Life magazine and had arrived in the city just a few days earlier because of an editor’s personal hunch. She was the only accredited international journalist in the city, and the only one to capture the Luftwaffe‘s flashes of light and fire and the anti-aircraft batteries. Hidden in the American embassy she was almost hit by a German missile that landed on American territory. Her photographs were proof for the magnitude of the attack. January 18th, 1991. Bagdad. A day after the UN ultimatum for Iraq to leave Kuwait expired, “The mother of all battles” started, fostered by the international coalition and commanded by “The father of all Bush”. The sky lit up with Tomahawk missiles so the CNN cameras could show the first live broadcast war in all History.

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The man of fire
August 24th, AD 79. Pompeii, Italy.  25.000 people woke up to one of the usual tremors that shook the Campania italiana. Nothing new. The people of Pompeii weren’t aware of what were actually volcano warnings until that fateful evening. The massive eruption, 32 km high, produced a pyroclastic flow and a nuée ardente that carbonized, buried and photographed most of the population for all eternity. The ash quickly consumed the city but it also preserved petrified the shapes of buildings and bodies exactly as they stood when disaster struck. Hundreds of them can be seen -and photographed- in pompeian museums. March 1991. Iraq. First Gulf War. Operation Desert Storm. Photojournalist Ken Jarecke captures one of the most horrifying pictures of war. An anonymous Iraqi soldier petrified in his truck by the fire and by Jarecke’s camera in a haunting grimace.  The picture’s distribution moved and stirred up public opinion, which was hypersensitive over the entrails of a dry war designed for the “consoles”. Ken answered the criticism with a quote to remember:

The last breath
June 17th, 1967. Vietnam. James E. Callahan, the doctor disguised as a soldier,  tries to resuscitate his unconscious comrade with ‘the kiss of life’, north of Saigon. At some point during the process, the doctor seems to look at photographer Henri Huet‘s camera in search of complicity in his helplessness and turning this scene into a quick early funeral. Spring 2009. Another North American doctor tries to revive an Afghan soldier on board a helicopter provided with medical equipment after he stepped on an insurgent-planted mine in Kandahar, Afghanistan. In the end, this soldier didn’t recover his breath either.

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The logo of death
March 1993. Ayod. Sudan. Photographer Kevin Carter takes one of the most famous pictures of History. It was published in the New York Times and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. The picture brought along a wave of gossip and sensationalism that destroyed his career, though not his life.  The debate over the photographer’s role distorted the real problem. The hypocrisy of those who stand aside and watch, criticizing without knowledge but applying the prejudices they soak up from their couches. Carter killed himself for other reasons unaware of his real mistake. The girl was the protagonist and became supporting character, and it wouldn’t be the last time. First decade of the 21st century. An anonymous picture uncovers once again the debate over the journalist’s role in the story. A posture that evokes forgotten vultures but leaves behind more mysteries than Carter’s.  Gaza? Latin America? This image has been going around the Internet anonymously for years like a wild card for the catechism of hunger, no quotes, no sources, like a description for anonymous poverty or UNICEF’s pet. No one ever seems to wonder again: Who is that child?

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