The burning monk was a photo-op.
Thich Quang Duc's self-immolation was, of course, a protest against the vicious and corrupt regime of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. And the photo that Malcolm Browne made of the event became one of the most iconic images of the Vietnam War, winning the Pulitzer Prize and World Press Photo, among other awards.
But Browne was on hand to make the photo because Buddhist community wanted him there. It had notified him and other members of the foreign press what was about to happen, knowing that such a spectacular and horrific act would command international attention and undermine support for Diem. As Browne told the story, "[a]long about springtime (1963),"
monks were telephoning the foreign correspondents in Saigon to warn them that something big was going to happen. Most of the correspondents were kind of bored with that threat after a while and tended to ignore it. I felt that they were certainly going to do something, that they were not just bluffing, so it came to be that I was really the only Western correspondent that covered the fatal day.
Malcolm Browne/AP: Browne's 1963 photo of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc.
Does it matter that the burning monk was a photo-op? That it was a carefully orchestrated event, designed to garner maximum attention around the world, especially in the United States, which backed Diem? After all, in the nearly fifty years since Thich Quang Duc's death, we've come to distrust any effort to package the news and manipulate the media.
I think it matters, but not in the way you might expect.
Just by coincidence, I've been reading Photography Changes Everything, a terrific new collection of essays that's just been published by Aperture and the Smithsonian Institution. In it, Kiku Adatto has some smart things to say about photography in the age of the photo-op, and he specifically addresses Browne's photo.
AP: Malcolm Browne, Saigon correspondent for the Associated Press, poses in front of his photo of a monk's fiery suicide after the image was selected as the world's best news picture of the year at the Seventh World Press Photo contest in The Hague, Netherlands.
Adatto says that simply revealing that a photo has been set up "does not diminish the power of the image or undermine its message."
To plan or stage an event for the press does not falsify its content, as the history of press coverage of political events amply demonstrates. Before a Vietnamese Buddhist monk burned himself to death in 1963 in protest against the Diem regime, his supporters notified the Associated Press, which recorded the event in a famous photograph. Similarly, leaders of the civil rights movement learned to time their demonstrations so that television could carry their message to the nation. Communicating through images is part of modern discourse.
He ends by saying something that strikes me as being exactly on point. "Photo ops," he writes, "must be judged not on whether they are posed, but on the message they convey. Like any other picture, they can document as well as deceive."
* * *
Browne's photo is in the news because he died this week, after a a long and distinguished career in journalism. You can read an obituary, here, and an interview in which his speaks about the photo, here.