Raymond Depardon’s France

To understand France’s political malaise, look to Raymond Depardon’s works. 

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As the popular revolt paralyzed France last week in the ways unseen since the events of May 1968, one curious fact about the protesters — known as the gilets jaunes after the yellow vests they wore — was often repeated. Most of them came from the diagonale du vide, the empty sparsely populated diagonal running from the Ardennes in the northeast to the remote Nouvelle-Aquitaine in the southwest.  This was Michel Dion’s La France Profonde, rural agrarian provincial towns marked by depopulation, lack of public services and in Dion’s view, lack of strong political ideologies.

Rhône-Alpes. Rhône. Villefranche-sur-Saône. "Le Garet".

That this ‘apolitical’ France had turned against Emmanuel Macron’s reforms bode ill for the president, still only in year two of his quinquennial mandate. This is the France of “des petits, des matraques, des spolies, des lamines, des humilies” — the little men, downtrodden, trashed, ripped-off, and the humiliated, by “the vampire state” — in the words of Pierre Poujade, whose occupations as a docker, grape-picker and road-mender were testaments to the career options opened to men born in this empty France, as Poujade did in Saint-Céré in the Lot Valley. Impossibly, Poujade managed to organize a 500,000 member-strong union, took a fifth of them on an anti-tax march to Paris in January 1955, and won 12% of the vote in the following year’s elections (one of its 52 elected members was Jean-Marie Le Pen, a later demagogue).

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This France was captured in the photos of Raymond Depardon, himself son of peasants, born on a farm in the Saone region. For an ambitious project launched in the 1960s to transform this agrarian arcadian France, DATAR (self-importantly named délégation interministérielle à l’aménagement du territoire et à l’attractivité régionale), Depardon returned to his family’s farm to document its gradual decline, and revisited rural France again and again in his photos and three documentaries, this was the France of 1980s, 1990s, and the 2000s, conjured up in the dark grimy black-and-white, far from services, populated by dead and dying men, working for dead and dying farms, living in hardscrabble cottages alongside unkempt trees and antique appliances.

From the book : La Terre Des Paysans.

Grace, Minnesota

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American states are a weird assembly of riotous traditions, laws, and items. Pumpkin pie is the official state pie in Illinois, Oregon has an official state nut, and New Mexico an official state question. Oklahoma, deep in the Bible Belt and contrarian, insists that watermelon is its state vegetable. In Missouri, the official state dessert was ice cream cone, in Nebraska, Kool-Aid is the official soft drink. Vermont declared maple as its official flavor.

By these standards, Minnesota declaring the photo above the official state photograph didn’t seem that unusual. More unusual was the photo’s journey — from being poorly received at the Minnesota Photographer’s Association in 1918 to being printed millions of copies and sold across the country, a photographic equivalent of Whistler’s Mother. On Amazon, you can buy 22 different versions of the colorized version of photo (by the photographer’s daughter).

The original was taken by Eric Enstorm in Bovey, Minnesota. The man featured was a local peddler named Charles Wilden, who lived in a sod house and disappeared into obscurity immediately after the photo was taken. While the photograph would later come to symbolize penitence, piety, and the ministry of ‘Our Daily Bread’, Enstorm’s intentions were less clear. While he had Wilden clasp his hands and bow his head and arranged household objects around him (he also scratched the glass negative so that the picture frame on the left appeared as an open window through which divine light shone), the book on the table was not a Bible but a dictionary. Wilden himself was a town drunk, and Enstrom later reflected that his thoughts were about the First World War, rationing, and privations faced by his fellow Minnesotans on the home front.

In a 1961 interview, Enstrom recalled that he wanted an image that would inspire thankfulness. He noted, “I saw that he had a kind face… there weren’t any harsh lines in it … this man doesn’t have much of earthly goods, but he has more than most people because he has a thankful heart.”

This thankfulness was again in short supply during the Great Depression of the late 1920s, and local churches began using the photo. Enstorm and his daughter would obsessively paint over the original prints (and even producing a matching image with an elderly lady) to give it the appearance of oil paintings. Eventually, when demand outstripped their ability to produce handpainted prints, the Enstorms sold the photo rights to a Minneapolis publishing house affiliated with the American Lutheran Church. After this, the photo found its way to churches, restaurants, homes, and boats around the United States.

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I have a Patreon. Patreon is an Internet-based platform that allows content creators to build their own subscription content service. For last few months, I have been using Patreon to fund my continued expenses as I research and write Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be self-sustaining. Readers who subscribe on Patreon might have access to a few blog posts early; chance to request topics or to participate in some polls.

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Death by a Thousand Cuts

Business of photography is largely the business of death, destruction, and misery. Humans are naturally drawn to images that underscore the fragility and the impermanence of their existence, and this blog’s history chronicled that obsession. But sometimes there are images which were so grim, so brutal, and so devoid of humanity that even Iconic Photos hesitate to feature them.

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There had been a few cases in the past that we had given such treatment to, and today’s post certainty qualified. If you click on the links above, you will be see the images of lingchi (or leng-t’che), commonly known as the Death by a Thousand Cuts. There was a time when the Western imagination was gripped by the Orientalist fears – fears embodied by characters such as Fu Manchu or Dr. No, and fears perhaps dating back to the Second Opium War, when a British prisoner-of-war refused to kneel to his Chinese captors and was summarily executed. Such fears were not helped by the notoriety of practices such as lingchi.

Lingchi involved tying a prisoner to a wooden frame and slowly slicing off body parts. Under the Confucianism, where to alter or cut one’s body was a spiritual sin, lingchi was the ultimate punishment, for this life and the next, reserved for major crimes, such as high treason, mass murder, or patricide/matricide. The man in the photos, Fou-tchou-li, was sentenced to lingchi for an equally important crime: he had been a guard killed his employer, a royal princeling from the Inner Mongolia.

Fou was one of the last to be officially executed in China by lingchi. Indeed, his execution, on 10th April 1905, was brought forward because lingchi was to be abolished two weeks later, although unofficial lingchis continued until 1920s and 1930s as China descended into civil war and public executions as acts of humiliation went on even longer to Maoist days. Ironically, Fou was one of the most famous victims of lingchi, as the photos above, taken by a French soldier stationed in Peking, were widely reprinted by Georges Bataille in his posthumous work Les Larmes d’Eros (1961), to ruminate on eroticism, ecstasy, and sexuality behind rituals and sacrifices.

The full set of photos are here: (link)

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I have a Patreon. Patreon is an Internet-based platform that allows content creators to build their own subscription content service. For last few months, I have been using Patreon to fund my continued expenses as I research and write Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be self-sustaining. Readers who subscribe on Patreon might have access to a few blog posts early; chance to request topics or to participate in some polls.

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Cathedral In The Desert

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In 1956, when the American government approved the Colorado River Storage Project Act, it was considered a significant achievement towards taming the Colorado River and powering to the southwest. The region, however, was laden with beautiful landscapes, which would be flooded by the project’s proposed dams.

To protect Dinosaur National Monument, a compromise site was chosen in a remote region between Arizona and Utah, 20 miles upriver from the Grand Canyon — a decision the environmentalists would come to regret immediately afterwards. David Brower, the executive director of The Sierra Club, who initially supported the dam, visited the area before it was flooded and reversed his position. He would partner with photographer Eliot Porter to publish the book The Place No One Knew, a photographic documentation of Glen Canyon which would be submerged.

Porter traveled through Glen Canyon eleven times, but his photos failed to convince President Johnson to halt the dam. The environmentalists also faced a formidable opponent in Floyd Dominy, who would went on to become the the longest-serving head of the Bureau of Reclamation. Directing the bureau’s funds to local districts, Dominy managed to influence the lawmakers, and insisted that, “there was nothing there,” in Glen Canyon. Dominy calling a Colorado River without dams “useless to anyone,” adding, “I’ve seen all the wild rivers I ever want to see.”

Brower got another photographer Philip Hyde, whose photograph above, “Cathedral In The Desert, Glen Canyon, Utah, 1964” was considered one of the top 100 photographs of the 20th century by American Photo Magazine. Yet, these were the early days of the environmental movement, and The Sierra Club was unable to sway the public opinion against the Glen Canyon Dam. For the next 17 years, the dam slowly filled the 186-mile long reservoir behind it, submerging Hyde’s Cathedral in the Desert and other landmarks, and prompting Edward Abbey to write his cult novel about an attempt to blow up the dam, The Monkey Wrench Gang.

 

Love on the Left Bank

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There is a book called The Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano, French novelist and the recipient of the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature, which chronicles lives and anxieties of Parisians in the 1950s. At the center of the book is enigmatic and waiflike figure of Louki who passes through this dimly-lit world of writers, criminals, bon vivants, and drifters, without others fully understanding her.

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Modiano was inspired by the photographs of Ed van der Elsken, whose camera followed an equally elusive and ephemeral girl named Ann through the bohemian left bank of Paris in the early 1950s. This work, published in 1954, under the title Love on the Left Bank was one of the first photographic works to record the birth of rebellious youth culture in Europe. Ann was fictional (van der Elsken used an Australian artist named Vali Myers as his model), but the world she occupied was real enough — the circle around notorious and charismatic Guy Debord, a group known as Situationist International, whose interests were mainly focused on avant-garde art, urban planning, cinema, and Marxist theory, and whose ideas were later recycled into punk and cyberpunk movements.

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van der Elsken’s photos were a window into the world of anxiety and uncertainty. Due to war and influx of foreign refuge writers, “for the last time—Paris was the capital of Europe,” as historian Tony Judt put it, but France had gone through a humiliating occupation by the Nazis and was fighting attritionary colonial wars in Africa and Indochina. In 1944, a French policy paper grimly observed, “If France should have to submit to a third assault during the next generation, it will succumb forever.” For young people in van der Elsken’s photos, like Jean Michel Mension (seen in the photos teaching a girl to how to smoke hashish property and later to become famous during the 1968 student uprising), this Paris was stifling, full of ennui, and unbearable.

Ascent of Denali/Mt. McKinley

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Seeing is believing, they used to say. With the advent of digital technology, that has been a harder statement make, in any field from politics to pornography. Yet, even without technology, people did manage to fake photos — just through simple cropping.

We were in Alaska, a century ago. As twentieth century dawned and the age of exploration came to its final stretches, a holy grail remained at the very top of the Americas. The successful summit of North America’s highest peak. The peak (which the Native Americans called Denali) had only recently been named Mount McKinley, after the sitting president — by a gold prospector who admired McKinley’s stance towards gold standard.

In 1906, Dr. Frederick Albert Cook claimed that he had reached the summit of Mt. McKinley. As proof, he produced the photo above of Ed Barrill standing on the peak. Barrill was a horse packer and sole member of Cook’s expedition who remained with him after Cook had sent back the rest of the party home when he failed to find a route up the south side of the mountain.  Other members of his expedition expressed doubts whether Cook had made it to the top, but the explorer was widely hailed as a hero. After all, Cook had led an earlier expedition to the mountain in 1903, which successfully circumnavigated the peak and scaled up to 11,000 feet.

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It took a few years for the truth to catch up with Cook.  Two members of the team, Belmore Browne and Hershel Parker, who were immediately suspicious of Cook (noting that Cook could not have made it back from the summit in just 12 days), led their own expedition in 1910, using Cook’s notes, maps, and photos and found discrepancies. By this time, Cook was already a discredited man, due to another outrageous lie that he was the first man to reach the North Pole, which was debunked by a Danish commission.  Browne and Parker discovered that Cook simply cropped a photograph of a tiny peak 20 miles away and 15,000-feet below to make it look like the summit.

Romania | Mike Abrahams

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This week we saw a glimpse of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, who traveled to Singapore with his own personal toilet (to prevent others from assessing his diet). There had always been crazy dictators like him, and his own grandfather Kim II Sung was frequently compared to the erstwhile Romanian dictator Nikolae Ceauşescu.

Ceauşescu was plain bizarre in many of his obsessions — in order to increase the population, he banned abortion for women under forty (later forty-five) with fewer than four children. There were compulsory monthly medical examinations for all women of childbearing age to prevent abortions and doctors in low birth rate districts had their salaries reduced. He only wore new clothes to prevent himself from being poisoned, and traveled with his own bedsheets, even to the Buckingham Palace. He granted his wife Elena who had flunked out of school due to plagiarism a PhD and made her the nation’s chief scientist. His British dog Corbu was made a colonel in the Romanian Army, and enjoyed rides around the Romanian capital Bucharest in his own limousine and dog biscuits flown from London in a diplomatic bag.

The West was always blind to such faults, mostly because Ceauşescu ruled his country rather independently from Moscow. After Romania formally recognized West Germany in January 1967, Nixon became the first American president to visit a Communist country when he went to Romania. Further boons followed, when Romania became the first Warsaw Pact state to enter GATT, the World Bank and the IMF, and to receive trading preferences from US and European Community. The Economist even called him, “the De Gaulle of Eastern Europe.”

Meanwhile, internally, the country was faltering. His natalist policies led to back alley abortions, and deaths from abortions rose. In 23 years following the ban, at least ten thousand women died from abortion, and infant mortality rate was so high that births were not officially recorded until the child had survived its fourth week. State orphanages turned into dumping grounds for 100,000 unwanted children, many of them disabled. After Ceausescu was overthrown in a bloody revolt in 1989, British photographer Mike Abrahams traveled across Romania to record the toll that the dictator’s policies took.

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pixelHe was at the Mental Hospital at Cula (above), where there were 2 doctors, 7 assistants and 15 nurses for 220 beds, and patients had to share beds, medicine and a single syringe. He went to the Carbosin Plant at Copsa Mica, responsible for industrial pollution and poisoning of local communities. He documented the Gradinari hospital for the disabled, near Bucharest (below), and institutions and orphanages (topmost) in which there were upward of 100,000 children. His photos, published in the Independent magazine, caused an uproar and moved hundreds of western families to adopt orphans and the new Romanian authorities to reform (albeit slowly).

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Roswell Memo

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Perhaps no other photo has been scrutinized as much as the one above. Books have been written about it, and the University of Texas even has a $10,000 reward for the first person who could provide a ‘definitive read’ of the photo. The object at the center of this scrutiny was the telegram General Roger M. Ramey (right) was holding in his hand. Some saw the phrase “victims of the wreck” on the telegram, while others claimed it read “turn out to be weather balloons”.

In 1947, Ramey was the Commanding General of the Eighth Air Force in Fort Worth, Texas when he was called upon to oversee a freak incident in New Mexico. While the incident was initially just a local news story, later many conspiracy theorists claimed that an unidentified foreign object (UFO) had been spotted and shot down over Roswell, NM. Ramey and the army brass maintained that it was a weather balloon, and much of their suspicious behavior surrounding the incident could have been explained by the fact that the incident was probably caused by the crash of a nuclear test monitoring balloon.

The photo above was taken by a photographer from the Fort Worth Star Telegram newspaper during Ramey’s press conference, where he showed the debris from a ‘weather balloon’. No copies of the original document survives. The photographer, a man named James Bond Johnson had forgotten about his photos until he saw them on a TV documentary, and subsequently  became a celebrity on the UFO circuit, giving talks about the day he was ushered into Ramey’s office to take pictures of the debris. He maintains that it was of alien origin.

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Mount St. Helens — May 1980

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(contd. from the previous post).

As Mount St. Helens primed for its explosion, the government dithered. Logging companies (including Wyerhaeuser, one of the largest private owners of timberlands in the world) which owned most of the land around the volcano vehemently opposed geologists’ plan to set a large danger zone around the mountain. Indeed, logging of old growth forests was so extensive here that when President Carter looked out of his plane window and commented, “Look at that incredible devastation,” he had to be corrected, “Oh no, Mister President, those are just clear cuts. We haven’t gotten to the volcano yet.”

Other government officials sounded equally out-of-touch. “All the people who were killed—I think except for the scientists—were there illegally,” said Governor Dixy Lee Ray, while in fact, only three of the 57 known Mount St. Helens victims were inside the state’s designated danger zones. But the governor was always prone to such gaffes; earlier, she had giddily commented, “I’ve always said I wanted to live long enough to see one of our volcanoes erupt.”

Due to government inaction, and people’s nonchalance (even before the volcano erupted, visitors were walking around with T-shirts that said, “I survived Mount St. Helens.”), the eruption was one of the most well documented natural disasters. It was one of the first major volcanic eruptions ever to be recorded on film. Most notable are photos taken by amateur photographer Gary Rosenquist and University of Washington graduate student Keith Ronnholm from a campground 10 miles away.  Rosenquist’s 24-frame sequence (above) was later used to reconstruct the explosion by the scientists and used at Mount St. Helens education center. Another notable was local news photographer Dave Crockett, whose video, of which eleven minutes were recorded in total darkness, was re-played on televisions worldwide. (Ronnholm and Rosenquist were lucky; they were extremely close to the blast, but were shielded by the landscape deflected the blast around 1 mile short of their location).

Despite all infelicities, death toll was smaller than expected — around 100 people were feared missing immediately afterwards, but many of them survived. The land’s recovery was no less miraculous too: just three years after the eruption, 90 percent of plant species and nearly all mammals had returned to the blast area. Leaving the downed trees where they lay, against the logging companies’ wishes to clear them, also resulted in faster recovery.

Mount St. Helens – April 1980

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At 8:27 a.m. on May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens in the Pacific Northwest of the United States was 9,677 feet high. Over the next five minutes, the volcano lost 1,300 feet, blowing its top in an explosion so massive that trees toppled 17 miles away. A force equivalent to a 7-megaton nuclear weapon was unleashed into the Washington countryside, and hurricane-force winds stripped tree and soil out, leaving nothing but bare earth. Each places over a hundred miles away were coated with two inches of ash. “It was like going to the land of Mordor,” recounts one logger afterwards, according to Steve Olson’s masterly Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens.

For the preceding two months, since a small earthquake struck below the north face of the mountain, the authorities and the locals had been monitoring Mount St. Helens, but they didn’t expect such an explosion. After all, the mountain had been dormant since 1850s. So they watched fretfully, tensions rising between locals, businesses and government ran high over access restrictions, even as the mountain developed a constantly growing bulge on its side for weeks leading up to the blast.

On April 30, 1980, the governor’s office barred the public from areas around the mountain, but the order did not contain a map and citizens were led to believe that the forbidden zone was only a small area around the summit. When the explosion came, many were caught up in the pyroclastic flow — mixture of very fine ash and gas with temperatures around 350 degree Celsius, which came down the mountain at a very high speed. May 18th was a Sunday. If it had been any other day, the death toll would have been higher, because for of all the warnings, people were still working in the area. Among the dead were an 83-year-old local innkeeper whose cantenkerous refusal to leave the area despite warnings made him something of a folk hero, a newly-wed couple who were fishing and camping at a nearby lake, four vulcanologists, and two photographers.

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The photos in this post are from Reid Blackburn, whose body and camera were recovered from the car he was in, outside the closed zones. Shortly after the explosion, colleagues from the local paper he worked for, visited the blast zone and recovered some of the gear, but the photos were unrecoverable. The photos here are from an earlier roll, which he left at the paper’s studio, and was only re-discovered in 2013.

 

 

The Ink Flag

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In 1947, when Britain conceded that it would accept the United Nations-sponsored plan to partition its mandate in Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, but would not put its forces to enforce the plan, it was yet another sign of Britain’s retreat from empire.

By the day the mandate expired — 15 May 1948 — the Jewish community had declared the establishment of the State of Israel, and four Arab armies were marching towards its borders. As Syrian, Iraqi, Egyptian, and Transjordanian troops (along with battalions from Lebanon, Morocco, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia, as well as a few British officers who commended some of these battalions) entered the mandate, the first Arab–Israeli War began.

The result was not a swift decisive victory hoped by the Arabs. The 10 months of fighting followed, interrupted by several truces, at the end of which Israel controlled all the areas for the proposed Jewish state as well as almost 60% of the area for the Arab state. Jordan managed to hold on to the West Bank and Egypt the Gaza Strip, but their victory was Pyrrhic. Around 700,000 Palestinians were expelled by the conflict and became refuges across the Arab world.

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The photo above was taken at the very last campaign of the war, as the Israelis pressed on into the southern Negev desert. Outside the abandoned British police post at Umm Al-Rashrash, on the west side of the Gulf of Aqaba (the biblical Elath), the Israelis raised a makeshift flag which would soon be immortalized as the Ink Flag; it said something about the state of Israeli army in 1949 that the brigade did not even have a flag, and the soldiers used a sheet, drew two ink stripes, and sewed on a Star of David torn off a first-aid kit.  The photo — reminiscent of the flag raising on Iwo Jima just a few years earlier — was taken by the soldier Micha Perry.

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I have started a Patreon. In their words, “Patreon is an Internet-based platform that allows content creators to build their own subscription content service.” I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be more sustainable and growth-focused. Readers who subscribe on Patreon might have access to a few blog posts early; chance to request this topic or that topic; or to participate in some polls.

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Guzmán Arrest | Peru

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Crude though it was, the moment above told the Peruvians that their long national nightmare was coming to an end. As police and prosecutors showed off Abimael Guzmán as their trophy, from his cage, Guzmán ranted and swore like a wounded animal. Elsewhere, his Maoist terrorist group, Sendero Luminoso (“Shining Path”) unraveled.

Sendero was perhaps the strangest and the most radical leftist insurgency in the Americas.  Guzmán — a philosophy professor — formed Sendero in the 1960s, as a fundamentalist Maoist party, and in 1980, as China embarked upon its capitalist reforms, lashed out by launching the “People’s War” to disrupt Peru’s first democratic elections in sixteen years.

The ensuing 12-year conflict, which brought the Peruvian state to a standstill, destroyed $22 billion worth of property and nearly 70,000 people died or “disappeared” , three quarters of them, the impoverished indigenous peoples of the high Andes. Shining Path also turned its Andean headquarters in Ayacucho and the Upper Huallaga Valley into a place of violence and cocaine production.

Three successive administrations, ending with the autocratic Alberto Fujimori responded to the rebellion with the dangerous mixture of ineptitude and violence until Guzman was captured in a bloodless raid on a modest apartment above a dance studio in the Surquillo district of Lima, hidden — in a fitting touch for such a strange organization — by the prima ballerina of the national ballet.

Many photos were taken at Guzman’s perp-walk, but photographers mainly focused on the cage and Guzman. Two exceptions were Ana Cecilia Gonzales-Vigil (above) and Wesley Bocxe (below), whose photos captured the intense security  and media circus surrounding the arrest, with secret service agents, snipers, and prosecutors guarding the courtyard. Gonzales-Vigil won a mention in World Press Photo (1993) for her photo and Bocxe’s photo was chosen as one of the most iconic images of the century.

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dumdum-patreon

I have started a Patreon. In their words, “Patreon is an Internet-based platform that allows content creators to build their own subscription content service.” I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be more sustainable and growth-focused. Readers who subscribe on Patreon might have access to a few blog posts early; chance to request this topic or that topic; or to participate in some polls.

Thanks for your continued support!  Here is the link to my Patreon:

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