Beirut | Don McCullin

In January 1976, Christian Falangist fighters “cleared out” Quarantina, a Muslim neighborhood in Christian-dominated East Beirut. The Minet-el-Hosn district, a seaside area of downtown Beirut known for its hotels, became one of the frontlines of the religious war that began.  The high-rise hotels offered perfect spots for fighters from both sides to launch rockets.

The image that defined that conflict was that of young Lebanese Christians, one with a machine gun and another playing on a looted mandolin serenading the body of a dead Palestinian girl in the middle of the street. The photo above taken by Don McCullin, then working for the Sunday Times, shows the grim absurdity of war and culture of fear, generational trauma, machismo, pretense, and inhumanity that envelopes it.

McCullin remembers:  

Once in Beirut, we used to cross from side to side without passports or press cards. One day I met the wrong faction and I carried the wrong card. I was told that I was going to have my throat cut. … I was held in a room for an hour, and I must confess I was never more afraid. It was an Arab left-wing group that had caught me trying to go into the Christian area, where a massacre had occurred the previous day. When I was released, instead of going back to the hotel and trying to control my shakes I crossed into the Christian sector and met some Phalange groups. I had dreaded being slowly killed by a butcher’s knife and was in a state of shock. I knew it wasn’t going to be a great day. In such a place I have a bad day every day. Inside the Christian sector I saw bodies all over the place. The clothes had been fired, so I saw a husband and wife lying side by side in flames. There were piles of burned corpses.

I saw some Christian Phalangists whom I’d been with the day before. They had an old man, a Palestinian who had come out and surrendered to them. They told him to take his trousers down. Someone pulled out a huge knife and was going to cut off his penis.

The man with the knife told him to put his camera away. “Take no photos, my friend,” he said to him, “otherwise I kill you.”

“Further down the same road, we heard strumming. A young boy was playing a mandolin ransacked from a half-burnt house. The boy was strumming it among his mates, as if they were at a picnic among almond groves.”

Ironically, one boy invited McCullin to take a picture, so he took two quick frames. He knew what he had, a photo that what “would tell the world something of the enormity of the crime that had taken place,” a carnival rejoicing in the midst of carnage, telling of what Beirut had become. McCullin notes: The irony was the association of strumming a guitar to a girl who is very much alive and with whom you’re in love. This whole situation was reversed. Instead of wooing the live and beautiful girl, this man was insulting the dead girl. He was posing.

The Falangists issued a death warrant for McCullin, who escaped Lebanon by hitching a ride with two Japanese typewriter salesmen. His photos from Beirut won him World Press Photo Award.

As for Lebanon, the country took decades to recover. Beirut was notionally divided into a Muslim-controlled western sector and a Christian-dominated eastern sector — a demarcation that eventually became the Green Line.  Before the war, Beirut was known as the Paris of the Levant, and celebrities and politicians had frequented the waterfront hotels of the Minet-el-Hosn. That Beirut disappeared. Many hotels were rebuilt, but one, the Holiday Inn, remains in ruins (due to disagreement between the owners on how to rebuild) – a poignant reminder of the Battle of the Hotels.

The Coffins, 2004


In 1991, when his gruesome photo of a dead Iraqi soldier burnt in tank during the Gulf War was published, Ken Jarecke remarked: “If we’re big enough to fight a war, we should be big enough to look at it.” For four presidential administrations — from the Gulf War until 2009 – there was a ban on the news media photographing the flag-covered caskets of American soldiers killed in war, imposed by the military, which viewed that the media had lost them the war in Vietnam.

The ban became an issue on Sunday, April 18, 2004, The Seattle Times published a large front-page photograph depicting several flag-covered coffins inside a transport plane, bound for Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the largest U.S. military mortuary. The photo had arrived at a particularly fraught moment for the military, as the American occupation of Iraq bogged down and the death toll rose alarmingly. Amid a growing insurgency, widespread uprisings, and a major crisis in Fallujah, that April would turned out to be the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Iraq since the war began.

The photos came from no photojournalist, but from Tami Silicio, a 50-year old civilian cargo worker, working the night shift at Kuwait International Airport for Maytag Aircraft, a military contractor responsibility for shipping supplies (including the dead bodies) to and from Iraq.

Silicio shared the photos with a friend, a fellow military contractor with whom she had worked in Kosovo, who then forwarded it to Barry Fitzsimmons, photo editor at The Seattle Times. Fitzsimmons contacted Silicio for her permission to print the photo, which was readily granted.

Silicio maintained that she had no political objective in mind. She recalled how the aircraft interior felt like a shrine and how the staff went about their task securing the coffins with solemnity. As a mother who had lost a child herself (her oldest son died of a brain tumor, aged 19), she wanted to bring comfort to families, to “let the parents know their children weren’t thrown around like a piece of cargo, that they, instead, were treated with the utmost respect and dignity.”

Three days later after the photo ran, Silico and her husband, a co-worker who she recently married, were fired for having “violated Department of Defense and company policies.” When it appeared that she might be fired, Silicio told her friend: “I took that photo from my heart. I don’t care if they sent me home or if I have to work for $9 an hour the rest of my life to pay my mortgage.”

“I feel honored. The photo was honest. It captured the respect for the dead and that’s what it should have been about. That photo stirred up a whole lot of stuff around this nation. People’s emotions were touched.”

Silicio would prove to be prescient. Unable to get another contractor job and unable to keep up with her mortgage payments, she lost her home and struggled financially subsequently. In 2016, long after the ban was lifted, she looked back and stated that she did not regret her decision to allow publication of the photo.


If you like what I do and what I write, or simply wants me to write more, you can support me via Patreon. I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be self-sustaining. Proceeds mainly go to buying photography reference books. 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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Falun Gong

Falun Gong protests in April 1999 symbolized much that came before and much that came since – so did the repression that followed.  


Last week, as Chinese cities erupted into anti-lockdown protests, commentators look back at the student led protests of 1989, which ended with the Massacre on the Tiananmen Square. Less remembered were the events ten years later, in 1999, when 10,000 silent protestors surrounded the Zhongnanhai, the residence of Chinese Communist Party’s governing elite in Beijing.

The protestors belonged to the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement, which began as a mixture of religious and athletic practices that the Chinese have performed for centuries. It began in 1992, when a former trumpet player and grain clerk named Li Hongzhi began preaching an amalgam of Buddhism, Taoism, and traditional Qigong exercises, publishing books, selling VHS tapes and giving lectures across China to gain a followership of 60 million.

The group’s bible was Li’s rambling dissertation, Zhuan Falun, where he claimed that he could fly and heal diseases and that his followers could stop speeding cars via the their belief. Among his writings were that the Falun Gong emblem existed within the body of the practitioners, that his followers could see through the celestial eyes in their foreheads, that demons and extraterrestrials were everywhere, and that Africa contained a two-billion-year-old nuclear reactor. (China was always susceptible to this sort of cultist ramblings. In addition to Mao’s Little Red Book, back in the 1850s, another village teacher who fell asleep and dreamt himself to be Jesus’s younger brother caused a religious civil war that killed 30 million people).

The protests  — the largest since 1989 – stunned the politburo on several levels. Firstly, the Falun Gong was able to amass 10,000 people on a few days’ notice. Secondly, the group’s membership was believed to include many party members, retired party grandees, and top military brass. And taking place as it did just before the People’s Republic was to celebrate its 50th Anniversary in October 1999 (where floats would carry giant portraits of Mao, Deng, and Jiang past Tiananmen Square) was a signal embarrassment for the Party.


President Jiang remarked that he wanted to see Falun Gong “defeated”; in a brief echo of the rifts between reformists and reactionaries during the 1989 Protests, Jiang would also criticize his Premier Zhu, a reformist technocrat, for being “too soft” in his handling of the Falun Gong. Jiang’s own response was swift and unrelenting, in a campaign that resembled the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Within three months, the practice of Falun Gong had been banned, and the government denounced it as a cult trying to undermine the state, on behalf of the Western Powers (Li had moved to the United States a few years prior).

In a template that would be later followed in Xinjiang, more than 10,000 Falun Gong followers were sent to labor and re-education camps. Many died. A nationwide “responsibility system” (a precursor to the current “social credit” system) was introduced. This system deemed that each protestor symbolized a failure to take action as all levels  –  local leaders, police, neighborhood cadres, employers, and family members – and all would be collectively punished. This enabled the Party to use ordinary people to rat out Falun Gong practitioners and discipline them. Both local and foreign companies and factories drew up lists of Falun Gong practitioners and fired them.

The photo above, which encapsulated the Orwellian maxim of “If You Want a Picture of the Future, Imagine a Boot Stamping on a Human Face – for Ever”, was by AP photographer Chien-min Chung, who was nominated for a World Press Photo Award for his coverage.


If you like what I do and what I write, or simply wants me to write more, you can support me via Patreon. I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be self-sustaining. Proceeds mainly go to buying photography reference books. 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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Jiang Zemin (1926 – 2022)

Jiang Zemin, a president and a meme, died this week, aged 96.


On “60 Minutes” in 2000, he was asked whether he was running China as a ‘developmental dictatorship’. Jiang Zemin was defiant. “Of course not,” he answered, capping an interview where he quoted from the Gettysburg address.

He was colorful, even eccentric, compared to grey apparatchiks who made up the Chinese Communist Party. A showman (playing public games of ping pong, showing off his Hawaiian guitar skills, crooning the Chinese community of L.A. with a selection from “Beijing Opera”), a boor (combing his hair in front of the Spanish king [above], publicly berating Hong Kong journalists with his thickly-accented English, applauding enthusiastically at his own portrait during a Communist Party parade), a charmer. He gave bear hug to a stunned President Yeltsin at a press conference in Beijing as their countries settled their border issues. He sang a karaoke version of Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” at the Asia-Pacific summit in 1996 with Fidel Ramos of the Philippines [below], and often broke out into “O Sole Mio” at banquets (once with Pavarotti). He asked Condoleezza Rice to dance with him, and at another press conference, this time with Bill Clinton, there was much debate and light-hearted banter – a turn of events which would be quite unimaginable nowadays.


He had to be a charmer, as he travelled far and wide to build support for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. That same visit to America had included a stop at Harvard where he joked that even at his age (71), his hearing is still sharp enough to hear the demonstrators outside, and that he would simply have to speak louder. He also appeared to have admitted a certain responsibility for the Tiananmen massacre:  “It goes without saying that, naturally, we may have shortcomings and even make some mistakes in our work.”

Those were the days. No Chinese leader before or since had been or would ever be that candid, that ingratiating again. But Jiang had made a career out of being agreeable: first as one of the “flower-vases” – a term for low-level technocrats who were all decoration, no action; then as an unassuming and peripheral Politburo member; and finally as a compromise candidate between the warring hardliners and reformists in the wake of Tiananmen, and an agreeable front man for the grey eminence of Deng Xiaoping. 

His rule domestically was a time of quiescence bliss – but not for the Tibetans or Falun Gong supporters that he persecuted, nor for state-owned employees who lost their jobs as China privatized – but Jiang encapsulated China’s peaceful rise in many ways. He stood for a time where it seemed possible that China could still be a normal pluralistic society. His 1997 Politburo standing committee was the first time in Chinese history that the state had not had a soldier at the core of its power (perhaps first time since the days of Dowager Empress Cixi) and his retirement, albeit protracted, was the only time in the Chinese Communist Party’s history that a peaceful handover of power took place.

After his retirement, Jiang’s images have become gifs and emojis on Chinese social media. It was with a mixture of affection and hilarity that he was often portrayed him as a toad, alluding to his wide mouth, portly physique, square spectacles, and often high-waisted trousers. The unlikely new fans who came of age and prosperity during Jiang’s presidency called themselves “toad-worshippers”.


Most memorable images of Jiang were of his public swims: at Waikiki Beach in Hawaii with black googles and a pinkish-purple swimhat, and floating languidly on the Dead Sea during a state visit to Israel – first by a Chinese president.  Rumors about his health had persisted throughout his presidency – at Hong Kong handover in 1997, Jiang looked unhealthy leading to rumors that he had suffered a heart attack. These swims were his attempts to prove otherwise, but they were unfavourably compared with Mao’s Great Swim across the Yangzi. No Chinese leader since had conducted such performative acts of athleticism, even though the elite still trundle down annually for a leadership conference at Beidaihe, a beach resort on the Bohai Sea where Mao loved to swim. (Despite Chairman Xi’s assertion to the Washington Post that, “I like sports, and swimming is my favorite,” there’s no photo of his swimming).  


If you like what I do and what I write, or simply wants me to write more, you can support me via Patreon. I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be self-sustaining. Proceeds mainly go to buying photography reference books. 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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East Germany | 1953


Earlier this year, as Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, Yuval Noah Harari wrote a punchy editorial in the Guardian. One line stood out: “In the long run, stories count for more than tanks,” and reminded me of this photo.


Unrest had been brewing in East Germany for a while. Uncle Joe had died a few months earlier, in March 1953, but his paranoid policies to tighten Communist rule over the Soviet zone of occupation in Germany were leading to unrest, disquiet, and economic turmoil. In his last year, Stalin had been rebuffed in his attempt to create a neutral, reunified Germany, and reacted to it by collectivization of agriculture, nationalization of private enterprises, and attacks on the middle class and the Evangelical Church. Half a million Germans fled to the West in 1952 alone.

On June 16, 1953, construction workers marched down Stalinallee to the seat of the Communist power to demand that it rescind a diktat increasing work hours.  The workers also called for a general strike for the very next day: a call that was picked up by RIAS (Radio in the American Sector) and broadcast throughout East Germany.

On June 17, more than one million people across 700 cities, towns and villages answered the call. The revolt — the first such uprising against the Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe — presaged the more famous revolts: in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and in Poland in 1980. Vladimir Semyonov, the Soviet military administrator of East Germany, practically wrote the playbook for the future Soviet responses to such unrests, when he declared a state of emergency and sent tanks into the streets.

Estimates of people killed varied: official East German accounts at twenty, Western accounts at 500, and Semyonov himself put it at around 200 in his memoirs. More than 1,000 were convicted of having taking part in an “attempted fascist coup”. The photo above, of two young men throwing cobblestones at Soviet tanks in a David versus Goliath encounter on Leipziger Straße was reprinted in the LIFE magazine and later featured on a stamp after the German Reunification.

The West German government declared June 17 to be a public holiday (Day of German Unity, Tag der deutschen Einheit) – a commemoration they celebrated in the West until 1990 when after the Reunification, it was capitalized to be Tag der Deutschen Einheit and moved to October 3rd.

Little remembered today, the uprising was seminal moment, which made two things clear. Firstly, it revealed the Western powers’s reluctance to get involved in a land war in Eastern Europe, no matter how poignant and heartrending images were (Life ran a four page spread), after a costly and bitter ‘police action’ in Korea. More importantly, as the Soviets turned their weapons against the very workers in whose name they were justifying their tyranny, the Communism’s allure looked that much dimmer – especially in France and Italy where communist sympathies ran high in those post-War years.

Tony Judt writes about Prague Spring: “the illusion that Communism was reformable, that Stalinism had been a wrong turning, a mistake that could still be corrected, that the core ideals of democratic pluralism might somehow still be compatible with the structures of Marxist collectivism; that illusion was crushed under the tanks … and it never recovered … Communism in Eastern Europe staggered on, sustained by an unlikely alliance of foreign loans and Russian bayonets: the rotting carcass was finally carried away only in 1989. But the soul of Communism had died years before.” Even before Prague, that lesson was clear on the streets of East Germany in 1953.


If you like what I do and what I write, or simply wants me to write more, you can support me via Patreon. I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be self-sustaining. Proceeds mainly go to buying photography reference books. 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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Last Picture of War | Robert Capa


His biographer called them “the most gruesome photographs of [Robert] Capa’s entire career.”

On the floor of a Leipziger apartment, 21-year old Raymod J. Bowman lay dead, a German sniper’s bullet clean through his forehead. His legs were splayed out onto the balcony from which he had been firing a machine gun, his head and arm twisted on the wooden floor of the apartment he has been knocked back into, a small puddle of blood streaming out of him.

It was April 1945. The war was coming to a close.  Bowman and another soldier, Lehmann Riggs, had set up a .30 caliber Browning machine gun on the balcony to provide cover for the 2nd US Infantry Division which was advancing across a bridge over the Elster.  Together with them was Robert Capa, who had been embedded with the troops since the Normandy Landings. He was just a few feet away when Bowman was fatally shot.

Capa almost decided not to take the photo. In a rare radio interview in 1947, the famed war photographer remembered:

“He’d just moved on to the open balcony and put up that heavy machine gun. But God, the war was over, who wanted to see one more picture of somebody shooting?

“So it made no sense whatsoever but he (Bowman) looked so clean cut and he was one of the men who looked like if it would be the first day of the war he still was earnest about it … So I said: ‘All right, this will be my last picture of war.’

And I put my camera up and took a portrait shot of him, and while I shot my portrait of him he was killed by a sniper. It was a very clean and somehow a very beautiful death.”



The photos were published in the May 14, 1945 issue of Life magazine, under the headline “Americans Still Died,” but in Leipzig, the photo was not particularly famous.  

After a hard fought battle in April — fighting was often house-to-house and block-to-block – the Americans turned the city over to the Red Army as zones of occupation were drawn up in July 1945. The Americans’ role in liberating Leipzig was written out of official histories where it was the Red Army that had saved the city — and Germany – from Nazism.

Capa’s photos only circulated secretly. For instance, Snowboy Magazine, an underground magazine, republished them, using the copies that were photographed illegally from Deutsche Bücherei (East Germany’s national library) which kept them in a forbidden books section, called ‘Giftschrank’ (poison cabinet). Finally in 2015, the apartment building were Bowman was killed was saved from demolition and two streets abutting it were renamed Bowmanstraße and Capastraße.  The building, now called Capa House, contains a small memorial with Capa’s photographs and information about Bowman.


If you like what I do and what I write, or simply wants me to write more, you can support me via Patreon. I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be self-sustaining. Proceeds mainly go to buying photography reference books. 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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The Zamzam Affair


“One of the picture scoops of World War II,” Time magazine called it.

The photos showed the sinking of Zamzam, an Egyptian vessel which departed New York in March 1941 bound for Alexandria, Egypt with approximately 200 passengers, mostly Protestant missionaries, plus two dozen volunteer ambulance drivers from the British-American Ambulance Corps bound for the British Army in the Middle East.

On April 17, 1941, the Zamzam was attacked by Atlantis, a German raider. Most of the passengers survived and were picked up by Atlantis. Among the survivors were Life magazine photographer David Scherman and Charles J. V. Murphy, an editor of Life’s sister publication, Fortune, who were on the way to South Africa to cover the war. Scherman had snapped away at the Zamzan’s fate – passengers abandoning ship, pictures of Atlantis, pictures of the sinking Zamzam — even as he was being captured. He even managed to take pictures aboard the prison ship.

He hid rolls of film in a tube of toothpaste and shaving cream and got a missionary doctor to sew the films in packages of gauze bandages which were then resealed. Before being repatriated, Scherman had to surrender his films to the Nazis “for examination.” He willingly gave up 104 rolls to the Germans but kept the four rolls that he knew to include the pictures of the sinking and some of the life aboard the German ship.

After his release, Scherman sent his photos to Life and the magazine published the story of the Zamzam’s sinking, accompanied by Murphy’s words in June 1941.  


For a brief moment, the attention of the whole world was transfixed: America was not yet in the Second World War, and Zamzam, a neutral passenger ship carrying primarily American citizens, could have been just the spark to sway the public opinion in favor of war, just as the Lusitania did in World War I. The German propaganda ministry, realizing the danger quickly released a statement claiming that all passengers and crew had been rescued by the German warship Atlantis, captained by a devout Lutheran, and that Zamzam’s cargo of oil was contraband, and therefore legally attackable.

Those were divisive and perilous days. In “Those Angry Days,” historian Lynn Olson recalled an anti-war country in which shops and bars near army bases banned soldiers, and generals wore civilian clothes to testify to the Congress. An effigy of a senator calling for young men to receive compulsory military training was hanged from an oak outside the Senate, before being dragged around Capitol Hill behind a car, by a mob of angry ladies: members of an isolationist mothers’ movement.  Often clad in mourning black, they encircled Capitol Hill to scream and spat at politicians for plotting to kill their sons. Meanwhile, inside the building, senators denounced one another as war profiteers and even a fistfight broke out. Robert Taft, an isolationist senator and the son of a former president, declared that President Roosevelt’s policies were a “good deal” more dangerous than Nazism.

In such atmosphere, Life magazine was almost circumspect. “American people who have learned a lot since the Lusitania went down, showed few evidences of either surprise or hysteria, accepting the news rather with a hardening of spirit, a grim determination,” Life magazine wrote under the headline, “Germans sinks an American ship and dares the U.S. to make an incident of it.”


Yet, by the time the German censors finally returned Scherman’s rolls of film, and Life magazine published a coda to the Zamzam affair, on December 15, 1941, the things had dramatically changed. Eight days earlier, the Japanese had attacked the Pearl Harbor and America was well on her way to war.

As for Scherman’s photos, those enabled the British, who would soon have the picture of the Atlantis posted aboard all their ships, to identify and then sink the raider, which was a nondescript merchantman refitted as an armed cruiser. David Scherman would went on to be an editor at LIFE for two decades, the only staff photographer ever to achieve such a switch.


If you like what I do and what I write, or simply wants me to write more, you can support me via Patreon. I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be self-sustaining. Proceeds mainly go to buying photography reference books. 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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Henri Cartier-Bresson | Shanghai, Jan 1949

On the day the Japanese Army surrendered in September 1945, the wars in Asia were far from over. As Ronald Spector notes in a recent book, “A Continent Erupts,” the peoples under the territories until recent occupied by Japan had vastly different visions about their postcolonial future which led to savage and bitter conflicts.

Nowhere was this brutal conflict more pronounced than in China were 2.5 million combatants and 16 million civilians were to perish between 1945 and 1949. The World War in Asia had practically began in 1931 with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, and it has dragged on as the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek cut secret deals with the defeated Japanese commanders in 1945-46 to engage some Japanese troops against the Communists.  

The Nationalists nominally still controlled the cities, but the power was slowly slipping away from them. Economy, after seventeen years of war, was in a nosedive and in order to keep funding the war (now without major support from the Western Allies), the Nationalists began printing paper money in vast quantities. Technically, they were backed by gold, but amount of Chinese fabi in circulation grew from 189 billion to 4.5 trillion by 1946.

The government tried to intervene – firstly by introducing a new currency, gold yuan and then eventually by trying to return China to silver standard – but nothing would work. In a typical dictatorial fashion, the government mandated all Chinese holding gold, silver, or foreign currency were required to surrender such assets in return for “gold yuan,” under penalty of death. Chiang appointed his own son in charge of these measures who led a reign of terror, sending trucks from house to house to confiscate the assets.  In mid-1948, currency was trading at one million yuans to a US dollar. By February 1949, it was six million yuans to a dollar. Paper factories in Kwangtung found it more cost effective to pulp hundred yuan bills to making new paper.

By now, the end was drawing near. Starting in December 1948, the government had been shipping out the nation’s gold reserves to Taiwan, knowing that the Communists would soon over run the major cities. In December, 2 million taels of gold (~75 tons), nearly half of the government’s gold, carried out of the central bank in the traditional manner – by coolies, parceled up on bamboo poles – down the gangplank onto a freighter bound for Keelung in northern Taiwan.  

This action, observed by George Vine, a British journalist looking out of his fifth-floor office window one night, would prompt a nationwide bank run. That was the situation when Henri Cartier-Bresson arrived in Shanghai in January 1949. Outside four government banks on the old Bund, a vast crowd teemed. In order to prove that there was still gold in the vaults, the government started selling gold from the reserves at around half the price what the black marketers were charging. Each person was limited to forty grams of gold, and thousands had been waiting in line since eight pm the previous night, ignoring the eleven pm curfew. The police made only a token gesture toward maintaining order, resulting in ten deaths by suffocation or by being trampled, by five pm the following day.

The government gave up this scheme quickly.  Meanwhile, they were shipping off gold — another 14 tons of gold was being moved out of Bank of China’s vaults under the Bund just as Cartier-Bresson was documenting the chaos above. The gold and silver was escorted down to Taiwan by Mei Ching, a ship which would later defected to the Communists, highlighting the risks involved in such a transfer.

By the time Shanghai fell to the Communists, almost 100 tons of gold reserves were safely in Taiwan already.


If you like what I do and what I write, or simply wants me to write more, you can support me via Patreon. I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be self-sustaining. Proceeds mainly go to buying photography reference books. 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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Hu Jintao is Removed

Kremlinology, they used to call it. Analysis of an opaque obscurantist state, using indirect clues: the removal of portraits, the rearranging of chairs, the standing positions and precedence on the parade podium on the Red Square. Even the choice of capitalization (“First Secretary”) and syntax in paper newspapers. In one of its most famous examples, Stalin looks increasingly lonely, as his comrades were airbrushed out of photographs — and past is entirely rewritten by an ahistorical regime.

This week, that absurdist spectacle was once again back to the forefront at 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. As the meeting apotheoses Xi Jingping and granted him an unprecedented third term as leader of China, his predecessor was escorted out of the meeting room, seemingly forcibly.

The fact that Hu Jintao, President of China from 2003 to 2013 and Mr. Xi’s predecessor, was taken away as foreign correspondents were ushered in and that there was a lack of one uncut video of the event fueled much speculation. Mr. Hu did appear, yet at several times during the video, he displayed feistiness and reluctance to depart — rendering Communist Party’s official line that he was taken ill doubtful.

We have two video clips of the moment. Firstly, the one from Channel News Asia:

The clip begins with Li Zhanshu, the Speaker of the National People’s Congress (and the third highest ranking member of the Politburo), taking away a piece of white paper from Mr. Hu. Mr. Li chats with the former president, puts the paper under the red folder and hands the folder back to Mr. Hu. Only seconds later (17 sec mark in video), Mr. Li takes away the folder from Mr. Hu, almost in panic. In the background, an usher is summoned to Xi.

There seems to be a lengthy conversation between Mr. Hu and Mr. Li. Finally at 56 secs mark, the usher returns, and Mr. Xi gives the usher a long set of instructions, pointing to (possibly) an agenda in front of him. Mr. Hu listens in on the conversation, his expression neutral yet concerned. Then then usher tries to show Mr. Hu something on his white piece of paper, but is prevented by Mr. Li, who once again hides it under the red folder.

Throughout this, Mr. Hu doesn’t not appear to look frail or ill.

There’s a cut to CNA’s video at this mark, so let’s move to AFP video. Please note that before the cut, there’s Mr. Hu’s signature glasses on the table, but as AFP video begins, the usher has already picked them up already. So we don’t know how long the missing footage is.

AFP video begins with usher holding Mr. Hu’s arm and the former president resisting, once again, not looking ill. The usher tries lifting him up, and 9 secs mark, Mr. Hu tries to reach for Xi’s red folder. This action hints that there might be different things printed on two presidents’ white pieces of paper, and Mr. Hu, upon realizing that, is trying to bring attention to it. Xi resists, the usher strongarms Mr. Hu, and Mr. Li hands over Mr. Hu’s red folder to the usher.

In the background approaches, Kong Shaoxun, a deputy director considered to be close to Chairman Xi.

Now, Mr. Hu is starting to look a bit discombobulated.

(From 23 secs onwards, AFP video overlaps with CNA (at 1:26 secs mark), so we can see from two angles).

At 33 secs mark, the usher almost forcibly takes Mr. Hu out of his chair. Mr. Hu nearly slips but turns to return to his seat. At 56 secs mark, Mr. Li tries to help the former president, but is dissuaded by Wang Huning on his left, the fourth highest ranking member of the Politburo, who’s often known as China’s ‘Grey Eminence’. Mr. Hu makes another attempt to take the folder and the white piece of paper back, but the usher isn’t showing it to him. Mr. Hu makes an indigant shrug of his hand, looking anything but ill.

On his way out, he exchanges brief words with Xi and patted Premier Li Keqiang, a protegee who belongs to his wing of the party, on the shoulder. As he was led away, other party grandees, including his former Premier, Wen Jiabao (white haired and sitting fifth to right of Chairman Xi) looked stonily ahead.

The whole sequence was simultaneously highly unusual given the meticulous stage management of such events and predictable – almost a ritualistic humiliation of a more conciliatory and outward-looking former regime, just for the sake of international audience. A signal of an end of an era. The footage was heavily censored internally in China.

So what was on the white piece of paper at the center of the fracas? Enlarged photos showed that they included a list of names – new members of the Central Committee. Although these names shouldn’t be a surprise to Mr. Hu (as appointments are circulated well in advance to party elders), it is possible that there were last minute changes or purges that the former president disagreed with. And there was much to be disagreeable. Mr. Xi was ‘re-elected,’ but neither Mr. Li (Li Keqiang and Li Zhanshu) were. Nor were there anyone from the Communist Youth League (tuanpai faction which was closely aligned with Mr. Hu) in the new PSC or Politburo. For the first time, it would consist of the Minister for State Security, China’s spychief, and would be all male – a first in 25 years.

Coronation of Haile Selassie, King of Kings


Many photos featured throughout this blog were iconic, some have made or unmade careers, others have changed the course of public opinion and wars. But few have actually started a religion, except these.

In November 1930, National Geographic sent a reporter and a photographer to cover the coronation of Ras Tafari Makonnen as Emperor of Ethiopia – or to be precise, as Haile Selassie, Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Elect of God. The story, reported by Addison E. Southard, who was also the United States Consul General in Ethiopia, ran 14,000 words, sixty-eight pages, and was accompanied by with 83 images by W. Robert Moore.



The coronation was a lavish affair, costing three million USD ($60 million in 2022 terms), not least because the emperor’s lavish gifts to the attendees. Five thousand cattle were slaughtered as Haile Selassie made his royal progress to Cathedral of St. George in Addis Ababa in a coach that once belonged to Kaiser Wilhelm II. At seven corners of the Cathedral, forty-nine bishops in groups of seven had been reciting the Psalms for seven days and seven nights without ceasing. “The studded doors of the Holy of Holies open ponderously,” wrote Southard as dignitaries paid homage to the Emperor, who allegedly traced his lineage back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The Duke of Gloucester, King George V’s son, gifted him a traditional English coronation cake and a trunk of ancient manuscripts formerly stolen from the country. Italy, once and future aggressor, was represented by the Prince of Udine, a cousin of King Victor Emmanuel III, who brought an airplane. From America came President Hoover’s envoy with an electric refrigerator, five hundred rose bushes, and a complete set of National Geographic magazines.

“The centuries seemed to have slipped suddenly backward into Biblical ritual,” Moore wrote in no less purple prose. He also remembered the photos he took:

“The Emperor … kindly consented to pose in his coronation robes, as poor lighting had precluded the possibility of making the photograph on the day of the actual coronation… but to secure adequate time during the strenuous ceremonial days of His Majesty and to select the proper position and lighting for my color plates necessitated many delays. On the late afternoon before I left Addis Ababa, on a last-minute special train which would connect with my steamer at Djibouti, I made the exposures of Their Majesties in the rapidly failing light which all but made color photography impossible.”



Moore and Southard’s story ran in National Geographic of June 1931 – and was immediately a sensation a hemisphere away in Jamaica. For the islanders languishing under abject poverty and racism, the article was a revelation – the mere fact that the princes of the earth “made obeisance on bended knee” before a black man was a revolutionary idea in Jamaica under the British rule. Telling British subjects that they were in fact Ethiopians, since King George’s own son had bowed to the black Messiah was even seditious. Yet, the preachers persisted, seizing on earlier prophecies that a black king would be crowned in Africa as the day of redemption drew near. Soon, they would coalesce around a religion, Rastafarianism – proclaiming Haile Selassie as the Supreme Being and carrying around the coronation photographs as religion icons.  

For the remainder of his tumultuous life, Haile Selassie himself would repeatedly say that he was not a god. At the invitation of Jamaica’s government, Haile Selassie visited the island in 1966 and met with the Rastafarian leaders to insist the fact, but these denials made him even more divine in their minds. Although the religion has somewhat faded from popular memory after a coup disposed Haile Selassie and with the death of its most famous convert, Bob Marley (who came to the religion via his wife) in 1981, today there are still around one million Rastas worldwide.  

Bombing of Singapore


On 8 December 1941, seventeen Japanese bombers dropped bombs over the island of Singapore, the opening salvo in their campaign against Dutch, British, and Portuguese possessions in South East Asia. Months earlier, Japan had already taken advantage of the defeat of France and the accension of Vichy government to seize French Indochina, and it was from there that their bombers embarked for Malaya and Singapore.

From then on to the fall of Singapore in mid February 1942, the air raids were frequent. Clifford Bottomley, a photographer dispatched by Australian Department of Information, took the photo above of the aftermath of the air raid — two women grieving over a child killed outside a rickshaw station — on 3rd February. Although largely forgotten now, coming as it did in the early part of a war that would produce hundreds of equally piognant, equally heartrending images, the photo recalled an earlier Japanese air raid atrocity in Shanghai.

Bottomley, equally forgotten now, had an eventful war. He covered the Malayan campaign for two months before he was evacuated from Singapore as the colony surrendered (producing another slew of memorable images) to Batavia. The Japanese army followed him, and two weeks later, he was forced to retreat again as Japan invaded Dutch East Indies. Later, he covered the Kokoda Trail, Buna and Sanananda campaigns in New Guinea and was with General MacArthur when he landed at Leyte in the Phillippines. He had a few narrow escapes — having wounded in Sanananda and a war correspondent sitting next to him in a jeep in the Phillippines being killed by a Japanese sniper — and was awarded the Philippine Liberation Ribbon, in recognition of his work during the Leyte Campaign.

I’m black and I’m proud to be black


It was a fraught game on Saturday 17 April 1993 when St Kilda faced Collingwood at Victoria Park in Melbourne, the home ground for Collingwood, the Australian Football League team affectionately known as the Magpies. The Saints had beaten the Magpies in the finals the previous year, so there was indeed bad blood – but it had been seventeen years since they last beat Collingwood at Victoria Park.  

Two of St Kilda’s Indigenous players, Gilbert McAdam and Nicky Winmar, received racial abuse not only from the crowd but also from the Collingwood cheer squad, which yelled for him to “go and sniff some petrol” and “go walkabout where you came from”.

As siren sounded at the conclusion of the game, which St Kilda won by 22 points, Winmar who was near the cheer squad raised his hands in victory, lifted up his jersey, pointed to his skin and said, “I’m black and I’m proud to be black.”

Although the television crews had missed the moment, two young photographers – Wayne Ludbey and John Feder – captured it from two different angles. Ludbey remembers:

“It was something that wasn’t normal, it was something that you weren’t used to seeing and photographing on the football field.  I knew immediately it needed to be recorded in the following day’s Sunday Age.”

Both Ludbey and Feder had to fight with their editors to get the photos the prominence they deserved, but the pictures appeared in the next day’s Sunday Age and Sunday Herald Sun respectively, and by the following week, it was the talk of the country. The Collingwood president made the matters worse by insisting on TV that the Magpies were not a racist club, and they did not have an issue with Indigenous Australians, “As long as they conduct themselves like white people, well, off the field, everyone will admire and respect … As long as they conduct themselves like human beings, they will be all right. That’s the key.”

It was a telling moment.  Australia was then on the cusp of a sea change. 1991 saw “Treaty,” a protest song by Yothu Yindi became the first song by an Aboriginal band to top the charts in Australia. The following year, the High Court would recognize the pre-colonial land interests of First Nations people within the Common Law framework in the Mabo decision, and the Prime Minister would give a speech admitting the negative impact of white settlement in Australia on its Indigenous peoples, culture and society.  

But Victoria Park incident highlighted the long road that lay ahead for a country where segregation against the indigenous peoples existed well into the sixties, and the indigenous people were out of school by age fourteen into the seventies. Such legacies endured — the first indigenous doctor only graduated in 1983, and the first indigenous judge wasn’t appointed until 1996 – three years after Winmar’s defiant stand. Even today, unemployment rates hover in high forties for the indigenous population of Australia.  

The gesture – and the photograph – would inspire a song, not to mention numerous murals and reproductions, and eventually a statue outside Perth Stadium.  As for the AFL, it established a code of conduct for players and teams by 1995, emphasizing the role of umpires in reporting racial abuse incidents and fining clubs up to $50,000, but tensions did linger on. As recently as 2020, Collingwood fans were being reprimanded for abusing an opposition player simply because he was indigenous, and a veteran AFL commentator had even claimed that Winmar’s story of racial abuse was simply not true: “Maybe Nicky’s dining out on it now about lifting his jumper … my recollection was that St Kilda won and Nicky lifted his jumper saying: ‘That was a gutsy effort. We have got heart’. Now it’s been misconstrued.”