Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Power of Still Photographs

Reading Time ~ 10 - 15 minutes. 
A still photo sometimes best captures a momentous event.
In May, the White House Situation Room photo held our attention. It was taken by Pete Souza and was part of a group of photos taken on the day when an elite Navy Seal unit raided a compound in pursuit of Bin Laden. The raid was being watched live by the President and the national security team.   However, we do not know what was unfolding on the screen when this particular shot was taken. 

When news started circulating about this Flickr photo, I was hesitant to see it. I was uneasy about the release - on one end, there was a dramatic feel to publicizing the watching of this operation in real-time.  On the other end, there was a vague sense of indirect glorification of the dead man more than he deserved. Then I inadvertently opened a meme of the photo on Twitter and so had to see the original.  The story the image told erased my initial misgivings.

The raw emotional state of the assembled group, arguably one of the most if not the powerful on earth, huddled around a conference table glued to a screen immediately commands our attention. Much has been said and written about the photo. Rex Hammock wrote an interesting piece here. He wrote that Mrs. Clinton has the most interesting expression of all. Mrs Clinton herself did not seem to think so, saying that a spring allergic cough may partly have been the reason for her pose.

So what have I got to say that is blog-worthy? I want to re-tell the story of strong emotions that arise in crises.
We have a primal reaction in times of extreme fear, anxiety or happiness, even if only for a few seconds. The mind is emptied of all thoughts of planning and analyzing and pure emotions become dominant. Children and old people easily demonstrate such pure feelings more than adults. We seldom see such pure expressions in adults except for fleeting moments in extreme situations. If captured in that instant in a photo, we get a riveting image.  The expression alone tells the full story of the causation.  

It appears to me that President Obama entered the room after the viewing had begun. All the central seats were taken. Being who he is, he must have just taken an available chair and pulled it closer to the table instead of disturbing the viewing.  We see him watching intently, his thoughts quiet, his mind focused. His face is reflecting his response to the unfolding events.  Since he was the one who made the call for the risky raid, he was taking and feeling the full responsibility.
Most others around the table had a similar expression except perhaps for a remaining thought anchored in - that the main call came from elsewhere.
Mrs. Clinton's expression is elusive. She seems fully engaged without the above mentioned thought, yet there seems to be more to her look.  

I believe the legacy of the picture will be in marking a change in our perception of leadership – a President from a minority group, being presidential in his own unassuming way and a woman Secretary of State, being herself in her position of power.

Several classic pictures have come out of the last few decades.  A few are below.   The passage of time determines the true status of an image - classic or transitory.

Margaret Bourke-White took this picture in 1946.
Mahatma Gandhi is focused on his book, calm even with the ongoing distraction. With the charka in the foreground, in his typical posture, his face showing striving concentration, weak with old age yet strong in determination: the photo is timeless.

Much furore came with this controversial picture taken by Eddie Adams in 1968 and public opinion began to shift about the Vietnam war.
The force of sheer terror and inevitability is on face of the Viet-Cong soldier who is less than a second or two away from his execution by General Nguyen Ngoc Loan.

This photograph was recently declared as the most famous photo by the Library of Congress.

Known as the Migrant Mother, the photo became the face of the Great Depression.  A mother of 7 children, Florence Leona Christie was photographed in a pea farm in California by Dorothea Lange.  It was one of 6 pictures taken within  a space of 10 minutes in 1936.

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Now, a image or a clip can be taken by anyone with a smart phone of any happening.

The raw images from Iran of last summer still feel fresh. Without these streams of information, the struggle of the students would not have come so very close to us.

The bomb blasts of last week in Mumbai brought up some vivid pictures.  Some of them laid bare the state of the emergency response infrastructure of this vibrant city. Apparently, the ambulances were late and the police force arrived late. So the helpless victims were dependent on the ingenuity and kindness of their fellow city-men to attend to their lives, limbs and dignity.
A few other pictures were clicked by some onlookers.  The pictures were of those who had just lost their lives, still lying askew in the debris. 

The zeal to find a situation to shoot a potentially classic photo runs through many photographers. It is understandable because the prestige in winning an award is high. Some go on to win a Pulitzer. However, many a photojournalist has come under fire, the kind that ends careers, for taking photos of the nearly dying or dead, in an accident, attack or a natural disaster. The photos are still extremely powerful but the ethics become questionable.
The subjective yet decisive line is thin: is the photo serving the subject or the photo-taker?  How clear is the line to the person at the instant of the click?  What will you do?

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Copyright Information:  The White House Situation Room photo is from the released Flickr images and the other images are from Wikipedia.  They are all assumed to be copyrighted by the owners, except for the Migrant Mother which is in the public domain.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice. Enjoyed it. I haven't seen the migrant mother picture before. All images were quite powerful. I have this image of raw emotion that signifies being engulfed in the moment and devoid of all analysis. The image is one of a perfect dive that hardly creates a splash - but goes deep into one's heart.