Iconic Photos

Famous, Infamous and Iconic Photos

Jean Sibelius | Yousef Karsh

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In 1949, when he was photographing a Shell Oil executive in London, Yousuf Karsh overheard his subject taking a call from Finland. The caller was Jean Sibelius, the reclusive Finnish composer, of whom Karsh had always wanted to take a photo. Karsh was already famous in the English-speaking world, but not well-known on the continent, and he requested the oilman to make arrangements for him to travel to Sibelius’ villa in Lake Tuusula.  Karsh remembered their session:

“I arrived at Sibelius’s home “Ainola,” named for his wife Aino, laden with gifts from his admirers – an inscribed manuscript from composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, a warm letter from Olin Downes, the celebrated music critic of the New York Times, a box of his favorite cigars and a bottle of old cognac from the Canadian High Commissioner in London. This last we shared with little Finnish cookies and coffee. His daughter interpreted for the straight-backed patriarch of eighty-four, although there was such a meeting of minds that words became scarcely necessary. The structure of his face reminded me of carved granite, yet with infinite warmth and humanity. This photograph was one of the last taken. He was visibly moved as I told him how the Finnish workers, in their northern Canadian logging camps, doubled their wartime output when his Finlandia was played for them.”

Sibelius had semi-retired from conducting and composing since the late 1920s. He led a lowkey life during the Second World War [during which Britain and Finland became only two democracies in history to ever declare war on each other] and spent his last years quietly obsessing over an eighth symphony he would never get around to composing. By 1949, when he met Karsh, his health was failing. His hands shook, his speech slurred, but the aged composer himself was enthusiastic about session with Karsh. He ran a powerline from the road to his house for Karsh’s floodlights and gave the photographer two whole days for photos. He told Karsh that it was his ‘last chance at a good photograph’.

He was not far wrong. Sibelius died in 1957, at the age of 91.

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This post was suggested over Twitter by Sami Haapavaara ‏(@SHaapavaara). I will be crowdsourcing topics of my next few posts via Twitter and comments. My next few posts will be on readers’ suggestions. What I am thinking: some iconic photo-related topic I will have fun researching. Best.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

August 1, 2013 at 6:35 pm

Posted in Culture

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The Oklahoma City Bombings

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It was a few weeks after the Oklahoma City Bombings in April 19, 1995. Not only was the story on the covers of Time and Newsweek, it seemed as if both magazines had used the same photo. Time editors who had brought the rights to the photos of Charles Porter IV were furious. Newsweek claimed that their photo was by another man named Lester LaRue. [Neither Porter nor LaRue were professionals; their photos came to prominence in that old-fashioned way before Internet: they went to local photostores to develop his photos, and the photostores tipped off the magazines and photo agencies].

Unsatisfied, Time accused Sygma, the photo agency which represented Porter, of double-dealing and using an alias to sell another photo by Porter to Newsweek. Forensic experts were called in to testify that two photos were indeed taken by two different photographers, standing three feet apart, at almost the exact same moment – as fireman Chris Field cradled 1-year-old Baylee Almon out of the bombed Federal building, in a pose reminiscent of iconic Pieta.

[Outside the United States, Porter’s photo featured in all British newspapers except the Sun, which believed the level of gore in the photo was unacceptable for the general reading public. The Independent printed it in black-and-white for the same reason. The Guardian, which shared the Sun’s convictions when the photo first appeared, printed it on the bombing’s first anniversary.]

The fallout from the photo was to be worthy of a grand literary tragedy. The baby’s mother, Aren, who couldn’t bear to see her daughter on the day of the bombing was confronted by a fullpage photo on the cover of her daily newspaper. She also came under fire from other victims of the attack, who were jealous of the attention (and donations) she received from the photo. As Chris Field was flown around the country by TV stations and talkshows, he too came under criticism from his colleagues who claimed they rescued more babies than he did.

But the worst came to Lester LaRue, who tried to commercialize his photo by publishing it on T-shirts, posters, and other memorabilia. Aren denounced this profiteering and discovered that that LaRue, who was working for a local gas company at the time, was using the company’s camera to take the photo. The company didn’t want the negative publicity and decided to bury the photo. LaRue refused to cede the copyright, and was fired from his job of over 30 years. He also lost the protracted legal battle which ensued; the company donated away all profit from the photograph to charities and his version of the photograph is rarely seen these days.

The next year, when Porter was honored with a Pulitzer Prize, his photo was not even mentioned.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

July 30, 2013 at 7:03 pm

O. J. Simpson Cover | Matt Mahurin

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If you were not living under a rock in the 90s, you probably have heard of O.J. Simpson and his murder trial. In short, the former football star (and actor manqué) was charged with the murder of his ex-wife and her friend. On June 17th 1994, Simpson fled the police in what was the television event for a generation, but was finally taken into custody. A week later, the LAPD released Simpson’s mugshot which ran on both Time and Newsweek’s covers on June 27th.

The trouble was Time’s version was a darker edited version courtesy of its photoillustrator Matt Mahurin (an unaltered photo appeared inside). Many observed that by darkening Simpson’s face, Time had emphasized his skin color (and therefore his race), gave him a more “menacing” appearance and feral look. In an echo of things to come, Time defended its decision firstly online – on a computer bulletin board then used by less than a million subscribers called America Online – and later on the next week’s issue, but also quietly substituted the cover with another (something it had never done before or since).

I have recently been gifted an excellent coffee-table-book called, Time: The Illustrated History of The World’s Most Influential Magazine; inside, alongside the publishers’ recollections of the entire saga, Matt Mahurin remembers:

This was a fascinating, maddening, challenging and ultimately expanding experience. As an image-maker, I work in a dark palette. Whether it was my Time cover on domestic violence, nuclear terrorism—or a former football hero who is suspected of murder—much like a stage director would lower the lights on a somber scene, I used my long-established style to give the image a dramatic tone. Also, the raw image I was given was washed out—therefore from a pure design consideration, by making the image more graphic, I hoped to give it more visual impact to catch the reader’s eye as they passed the newsstand.

For me, the controversy was as much about power as it is about racism. Time magazine had the circulation power to reach millions of readers—and I had the power to make the image that they would see. In hindsight. the misfortune was that there was not a person in a position of power or perception able to be sensitive as to how this image could be perceived by the various interests each pushing their own agendas on race, power and the media. I also believe it was possible there was no one who could have anticipated the fallout. In the end, my career has been in pursuit of the power of the image and it is through this power of the image that we become educated and in the end, this is what we should hold on to; that we have been educated as to how images can he perceived.

As both a professional and personal experience, it is not one I would wish on anyone, nor would I have ever traded it away, because despite all the conflict that came from this controversy, it is yet one more testament that one image is worth a thousand words.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

July 21, 2013 at 6:22 pm

Congo, Contd.

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Picture 2

A few years ago, I wrote about the human rights crises in Congo throughout the 19th and 20th century. There, I have failed to mention a few details about the photo accompanying the post (reproduced above). The photo showed a man named Nsala Wala with his daughter’s hand and foot. Alice Harris, working as a missionary in the Congo, took the photo in May 1904, after he had come into her mission at Baringa with a small package containing the severed body parts. Both his wife and child had been killed and mutilated.

Cutting off hands was a common practice by the Force Publique, the police authorities of the Belgian Congo, to prevent theft and to terrorize the planters into harvesting more rubber. Deeply shocked to learn this, Alice and her husband John sent the photo back to Britain with a comment, “The photograph is most telling, and as a slide will rouse any audience to an outburst of rage.”

Many at home dismissed the photo as an anomaly, practiced by a few bad apples. The Harrises sent back a few more photos. One showed two anonymous Congolese men — flanked by John Harris and his friend Stannard — holding the severed hands of their friends Bolenge and Lingomo. Another showed a young boy Epondo with his mutilated hand (below, rightmost) . The couple also toured Europe and America on a lecture tour denouncing Congo atrocities. They showed photos showing chicotte (whip made from hippopotamus hide) being used on laborers and and female hostages held in chains by a forest guard.

What followed was the first successful human rights campaign in history. The photos were reproduced in many papers and books, including Nsala’s photo which appeared in a popular pamphlet by Mark Twain. King Leopold who owned the colony tried to discredit the photos by claiming that protestant Harris was ideologically motivated against his Catholic colonialism. In Epondo’s case, the colonial officials claimed that his hand was amputated because of a gangrenous boar bite.  However, the scale of photos spoke for themselves and the public opinion was vehemently against the practices in the Congo. Leopold finally relinquished the colony to the Belgian State in 1908.


Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

July 16, 2013 at 12:00 am

Crimes de la Commune

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Throughout the 19th century, the body politic in France was marred by tumult. Starting with the revolution of 1830, there had been anti-clerical riots in 1831, barricades in 1832 and 1834, and two revolutions in 1848. Between 1827 and 1849, Paris saw barricade action eight times, and it all culminated in the Paris Commune of 1871 — the bloodiest since the 1789 Revolution. Historians still differ on motives and legacies of the Communards, but their revolt was directly prompted by France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and disenchantment with the royalist and conservative elite they held responsible for perceived social, economic and military failures.

The Communards declared Paris independent and set about establishing their own institutions. Weeks of fighting followed, including the semaine sanglante of 21-28 May 1871. The Bonapartist victory column at the Place Vendôme was pulled down. The Louvre and the Versailles were attacked, and as it was in Victor Hugo’s novel Notre Dame, the cathedral was surrounded and nearly burnt down; the Archbishop of Paris was murdered, along with several judges and politicians. The Palais des Tuileries, the Palais Royal, the Palais d’Orsay, the Palais de Justice, and the Hôtel de Ville were all set on fire, although not – as it was claimed hysterically at the time – by bands of female communards known as pétroleuses who walked around throwing bottles full of petroleum into bourgeoisie homes and businesses.

The revolt was eventually put down brutally by the military. Soon afterwards appeared a series of nine photographs entitled, “Crimes of the Commune” which depicted firing squads, murders and other excesses of the Communard revolutionaries. Although they were based on real events, the photos were fabrications — one of the earliest photo manipulations, not by the government but by a royalist zealot. Eugene Appert, a failed painter, ardently attended the trials of the Communards and took their portraits. Then, he hired actors to recreate firing squads, pasting the faces from the trial photos onto the restaged tableaux. Appert’s photos were so effective as political propaganda that even the embarrassed government had to ban them for they were “disturbing the public peace” by sustaining anti-Communard sentiments.

The government was less coy about other means of using photography to stamp out the Communards; the police pored over the photographs of Bruno Braquehais (who documented the Commune as it unfolded) to identify and arrest of agitators. Appert and Braquehais were just two of many photographers who made their name during the Commune, in those early heady days of photography. Their names and works are long forgotten now, but both photographers and governments still use photographic techniques and possibilities first revealed during the Commune in 1871.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

July 13, 2013 at 10:36 am

Tauza | Drum Magazine

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Photography loves misery, and compelling are the photos of oppression. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement in the United States was evocatively photographed, another struggle across the ocean was similarly being recorded. In South Africa’s long struggle with the Apartheid, photography played a large (if largely-unacknowledged-outside-Africa) role, thanks to a magazine called Drum.

Drum was managed by two Englishmen, both products of public schools. Jim Bailey and Anthony Sampson seemed unassuming and unimposing figures but they achieved what was never impossible: even after many other magazines had been banned for printing anti-apartheid photos, their little magazine survived. Their trick was to publicize Drum as a gossipy rag, while slipping in anti-apartheid news, stories, and photos between general interest pieces on weddings, nightlife, and movie stars. While the magazine was ambitious (and wanted to expand to other English-speaking African states), it was not a profitable enterprise. Its de facto boycott by the South African establishment at the time only made it harder, and Bailey nearly squandered all the money left by his father, the Johannesburg gold magnate Abe Bailey (who was as close as one might get to Flintheart Glomgold without being a cartoon duck).

But Drum‘s assets were in its intrepid journalists and photographers, nearly all of them from all black Jo’burg neighbourhood of Sophiatown. Many of Drum’s star photographers tried to get themselves arrested and took photos inside prisons using . One such photographer, Peter Magubane, was arrested for two years and banned from taking photographs for five years upon his release. Five years later, Magubane defiantly resumed his photojournalistic career.

Perhaps the most famous picture ever published in Drum — some have even called it the most famous picture ever published in Africa — was a photograph of prisoners doing a naked tauza dance. Tauza was a humiliating ritual that the black prisoners had to undergo when they were returning from a court appearance or a work program to ensure that they had nothing hidden in their rectums. Bailey and his reporters had known about the practice and decided that a photo of tauza would be perfect for Henry Nxumalo’s scathing first-hand story on appalling conditions inside South African prisons.

So he sent a white secretary from the office to the notorious Johannesburg prison The Fort. She posed as a photographer while an actual photographer Bob Gosani — Nxumalo’s nephew — and writer Arthur Maimane simply accompanied her as her black servants. The prison authorities paid little attention to the woman photographer from a little rag (many viewed the magazine as a Rand-equivalent of Us Weekly) and much less attention to her companions. As the result, Gosani managed to take the photo above which shocked many when published and led to some, albeit grudging and slow, reform in South African prison system.

That was in 1954 — Apartheid would remain in South Africa for the next four decades. As for Drum the destruction of Sophiatown in later that year (which would also lead a young Nelson Mandela onto the road towards armed resistance) marked an end to its creative reign. Its wonderful staff also disintegrated into fingerpointing and infighting.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

June 28, 2013 at 9:27 pm

Some Things You Might Have Missed

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Now for something completely different …

This is the first time I used the Image Gallery feature to look back on my previous posts. WordPress currently doesn’t allow me to link to posts directly, so you will either have to use ‘search bar’ to reach the posts behind these photos or click on the photo and then click again on its heading title in the next page. Hopefully this is not too confusing.

If you, dear Reader, enjoy something like this (let me know below), I will more frequently curate more such galleries in the future.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

June 18, 2013 at 10:32 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Photo of an Unknown War

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The blog likes to note there is often no truth in photography. What better photo to illustrate this point that this one used in propaganda by both Communists and Fascists, and in two wars a decade apart. 


In the late 1970s, as the gerontocractic fascism of Francisco Franco drew to a close, historians revisited his arrival onto the world stage during the Spanish Civil War, now viewed in retrospect as the Dress Rehearsal for the Second World War. They pointed out the above photo as an evidence of atrocities committed by Franco’s troops on their prisoners of war during the Civil War, an eerie precursor of Fascist crimes to come.

Throughout the Civil War, both sides exploited the power of news media and newly-popular photography, at times using the same photographs. Back in 1938, the above photo was used by the Falange – the Spanish Fascists – to denounce the barbarous nature of the Spanish Republicans. In Corriere della Sera (which toed Mussolini’s line after the removal of its editor Luigi Albertini), it was labelled as the communist International Brigaders holding the heads of Spainish patriots.

The photo, which does look like a poor Photoshop attempt, is often attributed to David Seymour, the future co-founder of Magnum who made his name during the Spanish Civil War. It was not clear who actually took it and it was not even clear when it was taken. In 1938, when L’Humanité, an organ of the French Communist Party, saw the photo, it used it to denounce the French colonial empire in North Africa.

In that aspect, L’Humanité was closer to the truth (but perhaps accidentally). The photo was perhaps taken during the Rif War (1921-1927), when Spanish and French Foreign Legions brutally put down a Berber rebellion in Morroco led by Emir Abd-El-Krim.

The photo first appeared fittingly in Memoires d’Abd-el-Krim, a book whose pedigree was also in doubt. Jacques Roger-Mathieu claimed that the book was dictated to him by Abd-el-Krim onboard the vessel Abda which was to transport the defeated emir to his exile on the island of Réunion. Although, it appeared with a grand subtitle of “la confession ou les confidences”, many now doubt the book’s authenticity, noting it was filled with “absurdities of all sorts, lies, and anachronisms”. As per Roger-Mathieu, the photo depicted Spanish Legionaires with the heads of Rif fighters.

Follow me here @aalholmes.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

June 18, 2013 at 9:39 pm

Editorial: Our Men in Silicon Valley

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Both the U.S. government and the Big Internet are responsible for the new scandal. 

Several years ago, when I was in the US, I studied with an old professor. I don’t remember much of what he taught or even what he taught, but one detail still fascinates me. On his laptop, a piece of blue tape proudly covered the webcam. The old man, an émigré from some half-forgotten Soviet republic, thought the government could still be spying on him. I dismissed this as ravings of a paranoiac. If the government wishes to see my gormless face surfing the web or detritus behind me that I call my room, it is their problem, I concluded then.

Many events since – especially the latest series of revelations as chronicled in the Guardian – have made me realized how naïve I am. I have always viewed governments everywhere as more incompetent than malevolent, but their skillful electronic surveillance has shattered both of those illusions.

It has been revealed that US government’s use telephone and internet companies to spy domestically and internationally is large in scale and depth. Companies involved ranged from Verizon to Microsoft. And the data they handed to the government include emails, login activities, video conferences, file transfers, and stored data. And it appeared not many people raised civil liberty concerns at any government or corporate level.

My time in the Silicon Valley had taught me that privacy to an Internet exec is like chastity to a prostitute. It is simply bad for business model. But many will agree that there exists a “reasonable expectation of privacy”. Last month in Paris, I had a dinner with two up-and-coming IT engineers. They dismissed my privacy concerns with nonchalant “just don’t put anything you don’t want to be shared online”. That is a petulant comment I often heard in the Valley, manned by socially-awkward men-children.

Twitter, blogs, youTube, or even Facebook functions as publishing platforms. I understand I cannot really control them. Even on emails, when I email someone, my mails/attachments are beyond your control, and can reasonably expect the counterparty to spread them. But two surveillance measures stood out: login activities and stored data. For instance, Apple, via “Find My Phone”, already possess an easy tracking system; I have activated it to protect my assets from theft not for it to report my every moments to its masters in Cupertino and beyond.

Back in non-virtual world, I expect UPS, DHL, or FedEx not to open my packages. I also expect the government to come with warrants if they want to look inside my storage lockers. Internet services should not be beholden to different standards. Not by the government. Nor by the private companies.

Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells @aalholmes

7th June 2013 

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

June 7, 2013 at 11:36 am

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24 Years After Tiananmen

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Iconic Photos’ annual look-back at a nasty and brutish affair.


June 5th is upon us again. In 1989, the Communist government in Beijing marred the date with a brutal and bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters gathered on Tiananmen Square.

Last year, I marked the occasion by an interview with Charlie Cole, the photographer who took one of the iconic Tank Man photos. The year before, I remarked upon the Zeligian appearance of a former Chinese prime minister in one of the photos taken on the square. In 2009, I covered various versions of the Tank Man photos. In between, we saw the defacing of the Mao portrait during the protests and a defiant Ai Wei Wei. A profound irony is they cannot access WordPress from China, so I remain, as always, preaching to the choir.

Above is the contact sheet from Stuart Franklin’s version of the Tank Man photos.  His photos nearly risked confiscation by the Chinese police, but Franklin had left moments earlier to cover events at the Beijing University before the police came knocking on the journalists’ hotel. Afterwards his negatives were smuggled out in a packet of tea by a French student who later delivered it to Franklin’s Parisian office. Franklin, working then for Time, won the World Press Photo Award for his coverage.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

June 5, 2013 at 6:23 pm

Wayne Miller (1918 – 2013)

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Wayne Miller, the chronicler of a black post-war Chicago, has died, aged 95.


When Wayne Miller returned to Chicago after serving as a combat photographer for the U.S. Navy, he witnessed how his hometown had changed. The city’s south side had been attracting African-Americans since the “Great Migrations” of the 1910s and the 1920s — so much so that the suburb of Bronzeville was known as the “Black Metropolis” – but Miller arrived back at a city whose industry had grown exponential during the war. Stockyards, mills, and factories were now manned by a new upwardly mobile class of African-Americans who fled the oppression of the south and emigrated to Chicago searching for industrial jobs.

With the help of the great Edward Steichen, whom he befriended during the war (and with whom he would corroborate later), Miller won two concurrent Guggenheim fellowships to fund his ambitious project to document this new social fabric. The two-year effort, collected as “The Way of the Northern Negro”, was an intimate portrait of a bygone Chicago, from church services to tea [marijuana] parties to demimonde of female impersonators.

In his Chicago, midwives delivered babies in dim-lit homes; slaughterhouse workers drank and brawled in the taverns till morning; couples made love with open windows and on balconies. And all human life was there, from celebrities like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington to an ordinary man [photo below] whom Langston Hughes singled out as the perfect image of his famed character “Simple”.

Miller’s assessment was so sympathetic and so full of hope that it was chosen to accompany Richard Wright’s bleaker essay “The Shame of Chicago” in the Ebony Magazine. It was also the first time the magazine broke its own rules to give the photographer a byline.


Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

May 27, 2013 at 8:59 pm

Brooklyn Museum | Phillip Jones Griffiths

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By all accounts, he was an old, well-dressed man. On the afternoon of 16th December 1999, 72-year old Dennis Heiner feigned illness and sat on the floor at the Brooklyn Museum. As the guards looked away, he ducked beneath the rope, run behind the plexiglass protecting a painting, squeezed white latex paint from a plastic lotion bottle he smuggled past the security.

The object of his ire was “The Painting Of The Virgin Mary,” by Chris Ofili, the British-born Nigerian artist who had drawn a black Madonna image with pornographic cut-outs and a clump of elephant dung. His juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane was received lukewarmly in London and Berlin before a high-profile denunciation by New York’s mayor Rudy Giuliani propelled it to notoriety, and led to it being placed behind plexiglass. Calling it “sick stuff” and “disgusting”, the mayor had vowed to defund and evict the museum (he subsequently lost the First Amendment court-case).

Heiner, a retired teacher, devout Catholic, and pro-life activist, had intended to deface it on the very first day of the exhibit, but huge crowds thwarted his mission; he returned two months later around the holiday season when the crowds would be sparser. He was charged for misdemeanors because the damage to the painting was valued at less than $1,500. This prosecution outraged many; Roger Homan, a Christian art historian, decried, “The perceived offence is not what the artist does to the Virgin Mary but what Dennis Heiner did to the physical image: the subject has ceased to be sacred but the artwork is protected by law.”

Eventually, the controversy turned to the one who took such a perfect photo of Heiner’s vandalism: none other than Phillip Jones Griffiths, the great Magnum photographer. Both Magnum and the photographer claimed that he was simply there with his daughter while Heiner attacked the painting, and that he took nine photos with his point-and-shoot. Many were skeptical and believed Mr. Jones Griffiths had been informed ahead. The staff who escorted Mr. Jones Griffiths out of the museum immediately claimed they heard the photographer talking on his mobile, “I got it.” Further fuel was added by the New York Daily Post, which having bought the rights to the photos, was attempting to prolong the controversy. Heiner, however, denied tipping anyone off before his attack and noted that he did not even know he was being photographed.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

May 20, 2013 at 8:45 pm


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