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17 July 2014


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Unfortunately, at least one Twitter feed has highlighted only the statement "...there's no doubt at all that a majority of Americans and the American government supported the apartheid regime in 1976..." without providing any context. My own recollection is that the majority of Americans had no opinion about South Africa in 1976. Among those who "supported" the apartheid regime, the concern was that an important area of Africa might be overrun by a gang of communists who perpetrated terrorist acts (the ANC). In most cases, racism wasn't the motivating factor. Fortunately, the carefully-orchestrated actual outcome, a couple of decades later, proved both that the fears of the "apartheid supporters" were unjustified and that patience is a virtue.


It's a hell of a photo. And it speaks volumes. Historians will love it.


In fact, this history is well known. The research has been done; the books and articles have been written.

Most Americans supported the apartheid regime, until the mid- to late 1980s. The perception that the ANC was controlled by communists played a role.

But racism -- or tribalism, as I'd call it -- was a strong factor. White Americans might not have known much about South Africa, but they knew that they were on the side of the whites. The belief that Africans couldn't be trusted to run their own affairs reinforced this attitude.

Another strong an thought provoking post John. I was still mulling over your previous post on Gaza, and thinking about your "what makes a photo iconic" question. I guess, as your later post exploring the Fallow's comment elaborates, there's often another dimension, an additional 'layer' of 'something', often intangible but powerful when present in combination with the visual - be it political, emotional, or something simply 'of that moment' in some way.

But let me take a big leap sideways here and mention something that struck me about many of the examples you showed and also mentioned, and I'm thinking specifically about the conflict images, such as the UT image, the pics from Gaza etc, and something they all have (to some degree) in common. It's an aesthetic thing but not (particularly) a compositional thing.

It's something I explored in my final year when I was doing my Social Work (Disability Services) training, and has to do with (for want of a better description) 'the aesthetic of the broken body'. My research on it was pre-internet so was very very limited, but from my best efforts (a lot!) it seemed there was not much research material to be easily found. But what I was exploring was whether the ways we respond to asymmetrical bodies is different from the ways we respond to more symmetrical ones.

My interest was particularly concerned with the visually 'unbalanced' nature of the bodies of many people with disabilities, and whether this had any effect on the ways people related to them. Basically, were people prejudiced before they even spoke to a person with a disability because of the often significant asymmetry. I found some material that suggested it did (related to hand and arm injuries and people's responses to them), (and some that it may not) but there was a lot of related stuff to do with the (human) ability to recognise faces (and shapes), and the ways we respond to them (such as this more recent study: http://dwz.psych.ucla.edu/ZaidelHessamianSymmetryJournal.pdf ). I wasn't anywhere near Phd territory in my studies so really only scratching the surface of a personal interest, but it was quite intriguing all the same.

One of the things I've noticed in many images from conflict zones, such as the ones mentioned, is the 'odd' shape of the bodies, they're held awkwardly by the individual eg because of the burning in the Ut photo from Vietnam, or because they're seriously wounded such in the recent Gaza images where broken bodies are carried by others.

Personally, I think we have a visceral (often perhaps unconscious) response to this bodily aesthetic, and that it adds yet another layer to our already complex response to what we're witnessing through these images. I think we all instinctively know from the subtle 'bodily' clues we see that this is unnatural - the odd bend of an arm, the way a head is held, the sag of a leg, all visual indicators to this subject being 'not right'.

I guess when all of this, plus politics, personal feelings about right and wrong, and plain old aesthetics are layered together some conflict images just pack a huge punch that just keeps on hurting year after year after year.

Many of these images, compositionally, share a central location of the main subject, unsubtle, in-your-face and hard to ignore. Which quality I suspect makes them (to continue with your spoken argument comparison) no more powerful a persuader (ref your comment "Photography is powerful. It can pack a tremendous emotional wallop. But it's not good a persuading. It's not an argument." ) ……but it certainly provides the swinging needle of the moral compass with an incontrovertible 'north' that we all will recognise.

The polite and subtly persuasive IDF spokesman I listened to on BBC radio yesterday can rail all he likes about 'terrorists', and the Hamas spokesman can draw from his extensive lexicon of "oppressor" or "occupying forces" or "enemies" etc but when the accompanying contemporary mental images that are conjured up in my mind are of small children the age of my son with crumpled, awkward limbs, being carried lifeless in outstretched arms, borne palms up no less, the ultimate gesture of defencelessness, their respective arguments are lost*.

*remove the dead child and see the gesture of piousness familiar in many religious images, familiar to me from many stained glass windows - another interest of mine as a 'maker' of sg windows, but also interested in the visual iconography of them which I think is hugely influential in our visual lexicography, but often overlooked. (See examples here: http://www.gardencitycob.org/?subpages/you.shtml at page bottom and a casual search of google will reveal plenty more.) It's like the 'pieta' in many ways, but with the figures standing. It's evident in the Ut photo, the Pietersen photo and in the Talatene images from this week. It signifies both futility and is at the same time imploring, begging a witness.

And if photography can do that, at least that, maybe even only that: to bear witness to the loss, then it's worthwhile.

My bottom line: that we cannot predict what will make an image 'iconic' is as it should be. The confluence of politics, public sentiment, current technology, the prevailing aesthetic, and subtle cultural conditioning of each of us, when combined with plain old luck, needs to be able to work its magic unhindered by the narrow-minded outlook of we image makers.

Sorry for the ramble not really sure if much of this makes sense or adds anything useful to the discussion.

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