As I watched Hans Pool and Maaik Krijgsman’s documentary, Looking for a Icon, I found myself thinking about Susan Sontag’s 2004 essay on the Abu Ghraib photographs, “What Have We Done.” Pool and Krijgsman’s film explores the iconic power of four of the photographs that won “World Press Photo of the Year” and have since become photographic icons: Eddie Adams’ 1968 photo of the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner, an anonymous photo of Salvador Allende taken soon before he was killed during the 1973 coup, Charlie Cole’s 1989 photograph of a solitary student standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square, and David Turnley’s 1991 Gulf War photograph of a grieving U.S. soldier. As Sontag predicted, the Abu Ghraib photographs have become of the primary means by which the war in Iraq is understood: “Photographs have an insuperable power to determine what people recall of events, and it now seems likely that the defining association of people everywhere with the rotten war that the Americans launched preemptively in Iraq last year will be photographs of the torture of Iraqi prisoners in the most infamous of Saddam Hussein’s prisons, Abu Ghraib.”
The iconic photograph of the Iraqi prisoner standing on the box, his arms outstretched with fake electrical wires attached to his fingers, loomed large over Looking for an Icon, appearing at first in the background on the computer monitor of Geoffrey Batchen before later becoming one of the key images by which the documentary sought to understand how photographs assume significant places in our image archive. The Abu Ghraib images remind us that the role of photographs in documenting history, specifically the hsitory of conflict, remain pertinent, while at the same time complicating the question not only of how photographs acquire their meaning, and by extension, their iconic status.
Looking for an Icon opens with a meditation on Eddie Adams’ 1968 photograph of the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner, a photo that is now regarded as helping to turn public opinion against the Vietnam War. In an audio interview, Adams reports that he was “surprised” that the photograph led to widespread protests and, in fact, his photo actually had a mixed reception, with many letters to the editor arguing that the execution was justified. Of course, because Adams photograph did have tremendous power, Batchen argues that there has been a greater effort to control the images of war that we see, turning press photography into what he calls a “propaganda machine,” a pronouncement that seems somewhat reductive in my view, in part because the “press” has been redefined since the Vietnam War and the first Gulf War.
These questions of representation frame David Turnley’s memory of taking his famous 1991 photograph of an American soldier grieving for a fallen comrade. During the interview, Turnley comments that as he look at the photograph, he recognizes that he is sitting approximately where he was seated when the photo was taken, describing beautifully the identification between camera and viewer. While Turnley’s photograph has been described as iconic, Adriaan Manshouwer, one of the committee members for the World Press Photo Award, challenges such claims, arguing that the photo fails to capture the Iraqi experiences of the war. In this sense, the film is willing to challenge some of its central claims about how photographs become icons.
Perhaps the most powerful moment for me was the interview with Charlie Cole, who photographed the lone student confronting the tanks in Tiananmen Square. In the interview, Cole reports his desire to give the student’s action meaning, recalling that “If this kid is going to sacrifice his life, I owe it to him to tell his story, to make his life mean something.” The narratives of the photographers themselves were often quite powerful, suggesting the complicated role of the photographer in documenting history, questions that continue to confront us as the war in Iraq continues to haunt us with no end in sight.
Looking for an Icon is available via First Run/Icarus Films.