Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph Blog Qualities held by ‘Iconic’ Images – Dr. Ellen's Blog

Qualities held by ‘Iconic’ Images

Posted on February 5, 2012 By

QUESTION: “Dr. Ellen, I recently discovered your website and have found it incredibly interesting in the research I am conducting for my journalism dissertation at the University in London. I especially found your essays on photojournalism interesting, as I am focusing on this topic. My working title for my Dissertation is: ‘An Examination of the Power of Photography as a Journalistic Tool, Through a Study of Iconic Images from The Vietnam War.’

The images that I have chosen to study are: ‘Self-immolation of a Monk, 1963,’ by Malcolm Browne, ‘Mai Lai Massacre, 1968,’ by Robert Haeberle, ‘The Execution, 1968,’ by Eddie Adams, ‘young boy discovering his dead sister, 1968’ by Philip Jones Griffiths, and ‘Napalm Attack, 1972,’ by Nick Ut.

I wonder if you have any opinions on these images as ‘iconic’ and what qualities you think an ‘iconic’ photograph holds? I would be honoured to have your thoughts on the subject I have chosen for my Dissertation.” ~Nadine

Nadine, your question makes me think immediately of an iconic photograph from the Vietnam War era. It is one that has taken on value to different parties for different reasons. In other words, it has a certain social and political usefulness.  This is the Eddie Adams’ image that you reference above.

Saigon Execution” (above) is one of the most recognizable photographs in military history. It played a contributing role in turning public opinion against the Vietnam War, even though what was going on in the scene was the execution, not of an unwitting civilian, but of a ruthless Viet Cong assassin. I refer you to an in-depth discussion of this story and the circumstances under which it was taken. You might also want to hear this brief statement  (on YouTube) from the photographer himself about the impact and aftermath of his photo: Eddie Adams Talk About The Saigon Execution Photo.


An iconic image is one like the above that suddenly becomes a bold visual rhetoric for collective anxieties that heretofore lacked an expressive outlet.

Viewers are overwhelmed by the powerful drama unfolding before their eyes because it is something they have not personally experienced. Pain, cruelty, the inhumane circumstances of war, the shocking losses associated with war — these are all things that non-warring citizens of the world try not to think about their daily lives. It is this reaction, on our part, that helps determine whether that image becomes iconic or not.

War would no longer be an acceptable option if a much larger percent of humanity had close exposure to such pain and suffering that is only acceptable so long as it happens in some distant place with designated ‘enemies’ of the state.

Images of war become iconic for these very reasons. They further the aims of conflicting interests by becoming an emotional hot potato that is furiously passed between divergent groups: between the US Military or the US Government and anti-war groups;  or between the Vietcong and the US Government, etc.

But even iconic images, such as the ones you are studying, don’t always tell the whole truth.

As is the case with any photograph, it can be cropped to project one version of reality over another. In the same vein, a color photograph will have less impact than a stark black and white image under special circumstances such as war or decaying inner city environments.

For example, a colorful comatose drug addict is not nearly so iconic as one depicted in some shadowy, grayscale realm.

The men whose work you are studying have by now become icons themselves. All of their photos are now iconic in the sense that they are pieces of their larger visual portfolios of war. And we know that thematic collections have more lasting impact than more fragmented collections, i.e., collections that range widely in content and scope.

Other photographers with less direct access to the front, or with less good timing perhaps, or who have more fragmented collections  – they may shoot similar scenes but their portfolio does not form an iconic whole. They don’t hone in on ground zero; they focus their lens more broadly, not just in war but generally. The result is they lack a cohesive body of work necessary to produce an ‘iconic’ image even though they may have a wonderful portfolio otherwise.

Wars have produced the bulk of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers for this reason: their body of work has a looming wholeness to it.

There are other things to consider here, as well.

One wonders, for example, about the ethics of governments or subversive political groups capitalizing on an iconic image to further their political agendas.

Eddie Adams in particular felt compelled to discuss his image, ’The Execution, 1968′ in public venues like YouTube to say that it wasn’t what it seemed. He was clearly concerned that he might have fostered the execution merely by being present.

It is an interesting thought because he was the only photojournalist in attendance; others photographers were asked but decided not to respond to the invitation to attend that particular event.

I would say this about exceptional wartime photographers:

  • they very likely brought certain depressive sensibilities with them to the front.
  • they understood angst better than others because angst also characterized their own lives.
  • if they had already suffered cumulative loss, they knew loss more intimately than those who had not suffered it, and they therefore responded to it differently.
  • their photographs therefore had more potency.

Thus, the photographer’s unique trek through life lends credibility, or not, to their wartime work. These same kinds of things underscore all artists to one degree or another, including writers.

So if I were doing a study such as yours, Nadine, I would broaden my focus to include in it the person who depressed the shutter button, not just their images themselves.

Nothing happens in a vacuum, we are all interconnected; and what fails for one, serves another.

Some wonderful photographs are just ‘snaps worth remembering,” i.e., they capture emotional moments in time that represent intersecting cultures, or a past culture that no longer is. They stick with us like so many U.S. photos from the mid-to-late 40′s stick with us; post-war photographs that celebrated WWII successes and that were also urgently needed by Americans tired of that long wartime experience.

Those images are even more famous today than they were back then but are they iconic? No, not in the sense that Vietnam War era photographs were iconic, but then they weren’t used as political footballs, either.

post-war_era*Image from Dr. Ellen’s family archives