The Thousand Words of a Single Photo

Photography is a vital tool in the business of journalism, and some of the most famous scenes from our history have been captured on camera. One factor that makes a photo journalist’s work significant is the ability to rouse a certain feeling in the news recipients. Famous photos such as the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945 and the videos of Iraqi citizens pulling down the statue of Saddam Hussein are examples of journalism appealing to a sense of nationalism (in this case, American nationalism) to create a shared feeling within the intended audience. Photos of the victims of the Kent State massacre were used to stir up feelings of outrage at both the Vietnam Conflict and the treatment of protesters of the war here at home. The idea is to use a single image of an event that captures it so perfectly that the viewer of the photo already knows the context and extrapolates what the photo means.

The problem that some people have with this is the idea that these photos are only meant to show a semblance of an event, and are often the product of a journalist purposely setting up a shot to portray a meaning rather than simply reporting on the actual events. Were the Iraqi citizens who tore down Saddam’s statue representative of the sentiments of the populace as a whole, or was it merely an opportunistic journalist’s conjuration to boost war support both domestically and abroad? While some photos like the children fleeing a napalm attack in Phan Thị Kim Phúc in 1972 are almost certainly legitimate, ones like the Bolivian army’s photo of Che Guevara’s dead body are made solely to report what the photographer wants to report (in Che’s case, it was meant as a threat to intimidate communist revolutionaries in South America). It is important to remember the line between reporting the events and creating history on one’s own.

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