No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture and Liberal Democracy

David Simpson writes:

On 1 February 1968 Eddie Adams took a photograph of the South Vietnamese chief of police standing in the street and shooting a Vietcong suspect in the head. The picture is listed on the web as one of the ‘100 photos that changed the world’. For years I thought that it recorded the blood spurting out of the side of the man’s head as the bullet went into his temple. Looking again, I see that I must have imagined this, perhaps because the graphic intensity of the victim’s twisted mouth and tightly closed eyes seems to register the very moment of impact and instant death. Or did I somehow see a retouched image? The camera never lies, the camera never tells the truth. Adams himself, very sensitive to the power of images, was remorseful about the impact of his photo: he admired the executioner, General Loan, and felt that he had killed him with his camera just as surely as Loan had killed the prisoner with his gun. Susan Sontag claimed that the event was staged, that Loan deliberately led the man out into the street where he knew the journalists were waiting. Did he want the picture to be taken to show what happened to the enemy during the particularly tense time of the Tet Offensive? If there were any such short-term local benefits they were soon overtaken by the world’s response, which saw one more reason why this war was wrong and had to end.

(LRB 29 November 2007)

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