I’ve seen too many collections of ‘Pictures that Rocked the World’ for them to really do much world rocking. The pictures lose so much meaning when they’re dragged out at very chance just to sell another Life pictorial collection. I like looking through the collections, but I usually end up flipping through them rather quickly.
Not long ago, I came across this photo collections. Many of them are too overused to be of any great impact. How many times have you seen the picture of the sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square? When you last saw it, What did you think about? Did you think about the incredible excitement that everyone felt that day, knowing that the years of death and destruction were over? Sadly, even the picture of a Vietnamese monk burning himself to death doesn’t arouse much emotion. Through over-exposure and commercialization these have all but completely lost their meaning and their power. Still, there were two in that collection that really struck me.
First, the lone student defying the tanks in Tiananmen Square caught me. Maybe it did because two separate but very similar shots of the event were shown, giving me an immediate second look. I stared at the images for quite a while. It took a minute, but then the weight of what I was looking at fell on me all at once. This was one man standing up alone against an entire nation. I can’t help but think that he knew that what he was doing would most likely end up in his own death. What an amazing thing to have been there to witness one man do what thousands would not. How shameful would it feel to stand on the side and watch that man stand alone? It is incredible, literally unbelievable. It makes me think of Arnold von Winkelried and his famous self-sacrifice, screaming, “Make way for liberty!” as he dove into the enemies’ pikes. It’s rare the world actually gets to witness such amazing heroism. The picture leaves me speechless.
The second photograph, taken by Kevin Carter, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. It is one of the saddest, most shocking things I have ever seen. It shows a starving child huddled on the ground. She is completely emaciated, seemingly moments from death. Only a few feet behind, a vulture waits. It is an incredibly disturbing picture. It is an image I will never forget.
After staring at the picture of the young girl, I sat feeling so sad and helpless to do anything. That is how I was supposed to feel. That picture was not taken so I could glance at it and scroll down the page to the next photo. It was meant to shock. It was meant to drive people to make a decision to act. I went back through all the images again. I tried seeing them. I didn’t want to just look at them anymore; I wanted to understand what was being shown. I wanted to be shaken. I tried to forget the merchandise, the advertising, the abuse of these images, and just take them in.
It’s funny how images so compelling can lose their meaning. Look at Che Guevara’s famous portrait. Everything the man stood for is mocked on a daily basis as the industrial world daily churns out t-shirts, jackets, hats, key chains, posters, backpacks, ashtrays, purses, belt buckles, and, my personal favorite, wallets. If you can’t appreciate the fact that Guevara’s face is stamped on wallets, I’m not sure what to do with you. It’s not that I agree with all of Che’s ideas or practices, it’s that the revered has become the commonplace; the powerful has become the merchandised.
What have I missed, and what can I not see? This is the question I’m left with. There is so much to be awed by. But it’s easy for the incredible, the inspiring, the horrible to be glanced at and passed over. I’m glad I finally looked again and saw at least one thing I had missed.