A few days ago, photographs of the aftermath of the Israeli bombardment that left Palestinian four boys dead on a beach in Gaza prompted me to ask "What makes a photograph iconic?" The answer is several things, not just one. Iconic photos, I wrote, are both communal and personal. They reflect important events that a community shares at the same time that they touch the emotions of individuals.
To put it another way, iconic photos embody a shared understanding of events and eras that are important to both communities and individuals. The shared understanding is key. Without it, a photo cannot become an icon.
Last night, I stumbled across a tweet from the writer James Fallows that owes it power to the iconic status of on of the photos that I mentioned -- Nick Ut's image of a small Vietnamese girl, Phan Thị Kim Phúc, fleeing an American napalm attack, during the Vietnam War. It both demonstrates the power and the limitations of photography:
When strategic message becomes ‘They’re forcing us to kill children,’ strategy is in trouble. As US learned. pic.twitter.com/5OVVLpvY4x— James Fallows (@JamesFallows) July 21, 2014
Here, Follows is using the photo in two ways. In a tweet to me, he said that it's a "for example," an example of how killing or maiming children reflects a broken strategy. That's clearly correct.
But I think that he's also using the photo as a substitute for words -- as a kind of rhetorical shorthand. He's assuming that everyone who is likely to see his tweet is familiar with the photo. That's true, or close enough to true.
He's also assuming that his followers will agree on what the photo means, a meaning that extends beyond that idea that napalming children is a bad thing to do. It's iconic status rests on a understanding that the entire war was a tragic mistake.
Fallows, of course, isn't really concerned with Vietnam. This is a tweet really about the current Israeli assault on Gaza. He's moving from his assumption that his readers will agree with him about the Vietnam War to urging them to see the Israeli bombardment and invasion in the same light. The killing children is certainly an atrocity, but, more than that, the strategy on which the entire war is built is tragically wrong-headed.
Fallows' followers seem to agree. They know what he means. Even more, the tweet struck a chord. It expresses something that they feel, but haven't been able to articulate as well. The combination of a few words and an iconic photo possesses undeniable power. By now, it's been retweeted well over 500 times.
But a photo and a tweet aren't an argument. They preach to the choir. They're not going to move those folks who aren't already persuaded. (I have no doubt that Fallows, who is nobody's fool, understands this perfectly.)
First, the Vietnam War is still alive and contested. While most people will agree that killing children is a bad thing to do, a small but vocal minority of Americans should have, and would have, won the war if we had prosecuted it more forcefully.
Second, opinions are even more starkly divided about Israel's assault on Gaza. The Obama administration and most Americans back Israel (even as Secretary of State John Kerry expresses his frustration in remarks that he thought were private). Neither the tweet nor the photo are likely to change their minds.
Photography is powerful. It can pack a tremendous emotional wallop. But it's not good a persuading. It's not an argument. When Fallows gets down to the serious business of trying to change minds (admittedly an exceedingly hard thing to do), he'll make a real argument. That takes words and it takes space, something that neither Twitter or photography offer.
Nothing that I've said here would surprise Fallows. He's one of America's most respected journalists and the author of many books about politics and society. I'm grateful that he provided me with something interesting to think about.