The power of the iconic: photojournalism and standing the test of time

Kaye Davis discusses the importance of photojournalism and the images that will stand the test of time to communicate their messages

From the millions and millions of photographs ever captured, there are only a very few that are heralded as iconic. The word ‘iconic’, as defined by the online Cambridge English Dictionary, refers to something “very famous or popular, especially being considered to represent particular opinions or a particular time”.

A quick Google search will reveal the images throughout history that have been identified as iconic. What each one of these photographs has in common with the others is the powerful story behind it. It’s possibly not a coincidence then, that the photographic storytellers of truth, the photojournalists and documentary photographers, have captured all but a few of those images — the iconic photographs portraying world events founded on both human achievement and human tragedy.

At the time of release, each of these images became embedded in our minds, and when remembering or revisiting them years or decades later, their stories are just as powerful (and poignant) as when they were first seen. Such is the power of the photograph. 

How many can recall the 1972 image of a young, naked Vietnamese girl running down the road? Kim Phuc (aged nine at the time), with a group of other terrified children, seen in agony, fleeing from the site of a napalm attack, having torn her burning clothes off. This image, by Nick Ut, became a symbol of the horrors associated with the war in Vietnam, and Phuc’s personal suffering and tragedy became the marker for turning public opinion on the war, the image later winning Ut a Pulitzer Prize. What is perhaps not so well known is that two of Phuc’s little cousins died instantly in the bombing. Phuc herself, suffering from third-degree burns to over half her body, was subsequently rescued by Ut, who took her to hospital along with the other children. So bad were her burns that the doctors didn’t expect her to live. But live she did, spending 14 months in hospital and many months more of ongoing treatment. Ut, whose image that day marked a turning point in many lives, often visited Phuc in hospital and also went on to set up a fund for her family. 

A second image that will strike a chord with many is Kevin Carter’s 1993 photograph of the little girl and the vulture. He travelled to the Sudan to document the rebel movement, and the trip ended with an image that epitomized the suffering of the famine-stricken region. Flying into the village of Ayod, in the Sudan, Carter was confronted by many starving people. Wandering into open bush, he heard whimpering and came across the little girl. As he was about to photograph her, a vulture landed behind her. He took his photographs and chased the bird away. Little did he realize the turn of events that would eventuate when The New York Times purchased and published his image. Many readers wrote in and criticized ‘the photographer’ for taking the photograph and not doing more to help. The image, in 1994, saw Carter awarded with a Pulitzer Prize but also led him on a downhill spiral. The inner turmoil he felt from all he had seen and documented in his life as a photojournalist became too much, and, only a few months after receiving his prize, Carter committed suicide.

The image that sparked this article was seen early in September, from an incident which created worldwide outcry, and is now likely to be added to the list of iconic photographs. I’m talking about the photo of the little Syrian boy washed up on the Turkish beach, drowned after the boat he and his family were in capsized on its way to the Greek island of Kos, a tragic and heartbreaking end for a desperate family seeking a life away from war. Again it is a single, powerful image, telling the story of a refugee crisis that has stirred nations around the world into action, prompting individuals and governments alike to offer their support.

Every day we are confronted with images that challenge us emotionally, both on a personal level and as a society. In New Zealand, we are very much removed from ‘feeling’ what many others suffer on a daily basis. It is only through such strong images like those mentioned here that we become aware of, and can in some way gain insight into, the plight of others. We should not criticize those who capture the photographs; we should applaud them for bringing these issues to our attention. Haunting images are intended to stir us into action.

I was again reminded of this when recently visiting 50 Greatest Photographs of National Geographic, currently showing at Te Manawa in Palmerston North — one of only two centres in New Zealand to hold the exhibition. While many of the images are quite light-hearted, others are not. 

As part of this exhibition, the gallery has a collage of all the photographs, and visitors are invited to write their thoughts on Post-it notes and place them on top of the images — resulting in heartfelt words from young and old. Even though many of these photos date back decades, it would seem they still resonate in people’s hearts and minds. For well over a century, photography and the photographers who capture these stories have given us the opportunity to see and learn about the plight of others in a very powerful way. 

Iconic images, which are often haunting, are intended to stir our emotions, and it is through such powerful and moving images that we gain knowledge of and understanding about the world around us. 

For legal and copyright purposes, we are unable to publish the images discussed, but they can be viewed online: Nick Ut’s image can be found at apimages.com, and Kevin Carter’s can be found at corbisimages.com.