What was supposed to be a 40 minute train ride turned into a 2 hours trip. Not the fun extended, unexpected “go for coffee with a friend but end up with different friends on a beach you never knew existed” kind of trip, but the “leave home on your bicycle to catch the train, but get caught in a thunderstorm only to find out there is no train so you wait for the bus, miss the connecting train in the next city, wait some more in your soaking wet clothes, everyone talks too loud, walks in front of you and generally every flipping part in this city is ticking you off” kind. That kind.
All I wanted to do is pay a visit to the Dutch Doc Days, a new three-day festival celebrating Dutch documentary photography. I had checked the program beforehand and wanted to attend a debate, catch a movie and see the exhibition. I only saw half the exhibition and never quite made it to the debate but did see the movie (documentary, I should say) which was the thing I really wanted to see anyway.
I enjoyed the documentary even if I was slightly disappointed after I learned they were screening a 4-year-old documentary but in all fairness, that has nothing to with the contents of it. Anyhow, Hans Pool and Maik Krijgsman documentary ‘Looking For An Icon’ was made in celebration of World Press Photo 50th anniversary. The idea was to find out was goes into the making of an iconic photograph as well as why does one photograph become part of our collective visual memory while another doesn’t. They interviewed photographers several photographers (Eddie Adams, Charlie Cole, David Turnley and OlivieroToscani), editors, publishers and historians. Oliviero Toscani was highly entertaining with his razorsharp insight that everything is for sale somehow be it religion, news or art.
“Authority that exerts power has to create an icon”
He also chatted about a photo shoot he did years ago while with his then girlfriend. She was a model at the time and was wearing a white bridal gown. They had been working all day and were quite chuffed with the way it had been going. The assistant suggested at some point he’d take a picture of Oliviero and his girlfriend. Oliviero was wearing jeans and a shirt, she was still in the white dress as they stood side by side. They were married from that moment on. No one believed it wasn’t a wedding photo and to this day, his mother keeps that picture in a frame as proof of their union. The couple did eventually get married but according to the world they already were and people weren’t all that interested. “We believe the image, not the truth.”
What was fascinating was seeing the frames before and after the iconic image, and hearing the photographers talk about what went in to making that photo. Charlie Cole was running out of film as the resistance at Tiananmen Square went on longer than expected, and his famous image was on frame 34 or 35 on his last roll of film. He became quite emotional when he talked about the man standing in front of the tanks and explained how he felt obligated to show the world this image as it was proof of the guy’s heroic act, one that he probably lost his life over, “they didn’t run him over them, but I am sure they did later on”.
One of the connoisseurs explained how we in the west are raised in biblical, Greek and Roman traditions where the individual can make a difference; David vs Goliath, George slaying the dragon and men fighting the gods. The image of Tiananmen Square find resonance in that tradition. This may not be the case in f.e. Asian cultures where the collective is more important than the individual. An image, therefore, may become iconic in one culture, but not in another as it doesn’t refer to the same collective stories, myths or traditions.
The documentary does not really answer the question what makes an image iconic or what is iconic to begin with. What it did explain is that iconic photographs often lack context; time and space are slightly kept out of the image as that way it provides more room for the viewer to fill in part of the story or to project one’s own emotions onto the image. And that they often side with those who have lost; lives lost, friends lost, innocence lost. Even if we tend to believe in the good of mankind we are generally lazy. Iconic images show us that “the other person” has stepped up or suffered on our behalf. The image requires nothing of us anymore as it is the end already. We can view the image, feel the pull on our heartstrings as it connects to our personal emotional history, feel a sense of right and wrong rising within us while we have our morning coffee and get ready for work. We don’t have to act anymore, someone did the job for us already.
We bought some drinks and enjoyed our beer or rosé in my friend’s beautiful garden while the sun was slowly setting behind the trees. The images still linger in my mind’s eye and stories are still ringing in my ears. Photojournalists are often criticized for glamorizing war or being sensationalist. Sure, out of all the people you can find some are, most aren’t. I think most work from a place of compassion and even if an image hardly ever really changes the world, they do contribute to our understanding of a situation and remind us of our humanity.
Tim Hetherington, Chris Hondros, Anton Hammerl recently lost their lives wanting to do that. That can not possibly have been in vain.