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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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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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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Rafael Wollmann | Falklands

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Taking an iconic photo is sometimes about being at the right place, at the right time. No one could attest to that more than Rafael Wollmann.

The Argentine photographer had taken an assignment from a French photo agency Gamma to take a “geographical” photo-essay on a remote series of islands in the South Atlantic Ocean, about 300 miles east of Patagonia. He arrived there on his 23rd birthday, on March 23 1982 and spent the next week documenting the island life.

On the afternoon of April Fool’s Day, 1982, Wollmann was greeted by the grave voice, coming from the radio, of the island’s British governor, Sir Rex Hunt — whom he had interviewed earlier. “We have apparently reliable evidence that an Argentine task force could be assembling off Stanley at dawn tomorrow. You will wish to make your dispositions accordingly,” Hunt repeated in verbatim a telegram he received from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Wollmann stood in the middle of a pub, where everyone turned around to look at him — the only Argentinian in the pub. The Falklands War had begun.

Accused by Hunt of having being ‘planted’ by the Argentine junta (two days earlier, he had sent some of his films back to Argentina with air mail), Wollmann was detained briefly in Hunt’s chauffeur’s house, from inside which he took pictures. An unknown solider shot at him, mistaking his lens with some weapon, and missed Wollmann by only a few centimeters.

After Hunt had surrendered — in the full ostrich-plumed uniform befitting a British governor — and was bundled off to exile in Uruguay, Wollmann got out into the courtyard and took the photo above of British Marines being forced to surrender. He remembered:

“They were marching towards the courtyard of the governor’s house where they were delivering arms, then they went to the garden and were seated. They were already prisoners of war. I took a lot of caution, and I did not want to be imprisoned or they taking my camera, so I shot a picture and left the scene, not knowing what I was going to find when it was revealed.”

On April 3rd, Wollmann returned to Argentina, where a bidding war for his photos ensued. “I was able to pay for my house overnight” joked Wollmann.  Editorial Atlántida, an Argentine publishing house which had fired him four months earlier, put a private jet at his disposal to return to the islands. Wollmann gave his film to Gamma, which had initially hired him, and in France, another bidding war broke out between Paris Match and VSD magazines, which the latter won. It ran the photo with a deliciously schadenfreude caption: ‘England Humiliated’. In Italy’s L’Espresso, the title was “Hands up, England!”. Some would later argue that these images and captions prompted Margaret Thatcher to act decisively in dispatching troops to retake the islands.

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Saving Madidi

On this blog, we have discussed earlier about conservation of nature and economic reasons to develop them. Last week, I stood in the middle of one such frontline, in the middle of the Bolivian Amazon.

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In 1995, the country agreed to establish 1.8 million hectares of cloud and tropical forest, lowlands and savannah as Madidi National Park. It was part of a Debt-for-Nature Swap (where Third World countries’ debt were reduced in exchange for the promise not to develop rain forests and other natural areas). The Madidi is one of the most remote places in the world, straddling the foothills of the Andes and the Amazon basin, drained by vast rivers and pristine lakes. Reportedly, it holds 1,000 bird species and almost half of the new world’s mammals.

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Controversy began almost immediately after the Madidi was declared a national park. Various Bolivian governments have tried to build a dam at the park’s southeastern border: a dam which would flood over 2500 sq-km (14% of the park), including the Chalalan Lake. As far back as the 1950s, engineers proposed building a hydroelectric dam there, in the El Bala Narrows just north of Rurrenabaque, where the Rio Beni bursts through the last ridge of the Andes in a narrow defile. Bolivia does not need all the hydroelectric power the dam would generate, but it hopes to export to Brazil.

The project was halted in 1998 due to local opposition and international studies, but remained in limbo. Enter Joel Sartore, a Nebraskan photographer for National Geographic. The park was so remote that he was in the flight for 36 hours, drove for a few more hours, and spent a day on a canoe, fighting of sweat bees. He spent days on the scaffolding to photograph macaws in flight and later had to undergo treatment for leishmaniasis, a flesh-eating parasite that he got from a sandfly bite. His photos of the park which were printed on March-2000 Spanish language version of the magazine with the heading “Madidi, Will Bolivia Drown its Spectacular New National Park?” A widespread public outcry followed. Sartore recalls, “[The issue] ends up on the president of Bolivia’s desk. What does he say? ‘Of course we won’t drown our spectacular new park’.” Twenty years later, today, the park is once more in jeopardy as the Bolivian government reconsiders the El Bala dam project.

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(More photos here)

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Bolivia, 1946

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It was now forgotten everywhere outside of Bolivia today, but in August 1946, the United States and the USSR co-sponsored a coup there against the dictator General Gualberto Villarroel. The mob stormed the presidential palace, and hurled the general from the balcony. His lifeless body was hung from a lamp post in the Plaza Murillo facing the palace, copying of the death of Mussolini.

The photo above shows Villarroel’s Chief of Information and editor of the newspaper Cumbre, Roberto Hinojosa who was hung in a similar fashion. Hinojosa was an organizer of the Partido Socialists Revolucionario in the 1920s and led an attempted insurrection in the frontier military post of Villazon in June 1930. He tried to rally working-class support for the Villarroel government and was often called a Creole Goebbels. Fittingly, he wrote the only contemporary Spanish language biography of Hitler.

Along with Villarroel and Hinojosa, two other men were hung on the plaza:  Luis Uría de la Oliva and Captain Waldo Ballivián, Villarroel’s private secretary and aide-de-camp respectively.

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For all his hideous qualities (Villarroel was a fascist and admirer of Mussolini and Hitler), the coup was “the last, perhaps most unworthy, Allied victory of the Second World War,” lamented The Cambridge History of Latin America. Villarroel was a reformist who recognized trade unions, created retirement and pension systems. He also tried to abolish pongueaje and mitaje (types of indentured servitude that existed in Bolivia since the Spanish times) and create an indigenous assembly. None of these reforms were welcomed by the Bolivian establishment, least of all by La Rosca.

La Rosca was a mining cartel of Bolivian tin magnates, led by Simón Patiño, then the fifth richest man in the world. In many ways, La Rosca was the Bolivian state: many officials held mining directorships and traditionally the foreign minister received a monthly salary from Patiño Mines. Villarroel’s suggestion that the mines pay higher taxes and wages chaffed the tin barons. Particularly, they hated an April 1945 decree that mandated all their export earnings to be deposited in the Central Bank. After all, Patiño paid less than fifty dollars in income tax to Bolivia annually.

La Rosca bankrolled the coup against Villarroel, but everyone happily participated: the teachers, the students, the pro-Soviet communist party (PIR) and its mirror the anarcho-Trotskyist party (POR), the U.S embassy, the Catholic Church, the League of Morality, the Association of Mothers of Priests, the War Widows. In his fascist ways, Villarroel had wanted to give equal rights to whites and indigenous Indians, legal wives and illegal mistresses, legitimate and illegitimate children, alienating all.

As for La Rosca, it was the last hurrah. Patiño died less than a year later in April 1947, having cemented his reputation as “the Andean Rockefeller”. He didn’t live to see his empire and most of La Rosca’s mines nationalized during the revolution of 1952.

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Margaret Bourke-White | Tractors

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In her 1931 book, Eyes on Russia, the photographer Margaret Bourke-White wrote deferentially: “silhouetted against the sky, majestic in the morning, was that new God of Russia, the Tractor. Evenly and regally it travelled the horizon. The black earth turned beneath its disks. A procession of tiny clouds followed it overhead. It seemed that the tractor drew the whole firmament after it, earth and sky giving reverence to this new divinity.”

In 1930, Bourke-White traveled around Soviet Union to document its industrialization for Fortune, then recently launched as a high-end magazine covering industry and commerce. She was the first foreign photographer permitted to take pictures of the Soviet five-year plan and had received permission because another Fortune commission about European industrial sites (which she undertook because it was a ‘stepping stone to Russia’.) She traveled across Russia and returned to Moscow with 800 negatives. However, the Soviets refused to let her leave without seeing what was in those negatives, and for thirty-six hours, she worked tirelessly in a darkroom of a movie studio in Moscow to develop them.

The Russians did little to fear from Bourke-White. She covered their plans and factories with awe. She praised Russians because they “consider the artist an important factor in the Five Year Plan, and the photographer the artist of the machine…. where an industrial photographer is accorded the rank of artist and prophet.”

If there was a machine that symbolized the Soviet Union and its Five-Year Plans, that would be the tractor. By uniting industry and agriculture, it translated the central committee’s rhetoric into practical gains that most Russians could see and understand. Tractor stations became schools for young boys; brides rode tractors to their weddings; films from Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth to Sergei Eisenstein’s The General Line extolled the mighty tractor, and the word ‘Traktorizatsiia’ (Tractorisation) entered the Soviet lexicon, and many agricultural communes were renamed after ‘Fordson’, a tractor brand. In the humorless propaganda of the collectivist state, “the enemy of the tractor is our class enemy”.

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In 1931, when Maurice Hindus published Red Bread, his account of his ancestral village’s mechanization, he reprinted Bourke-White’s photograph of a tractor at State Farm No. 2 with a fawning caption “The Russians regard the tractor as the chief conquering weapon of the Kolkhoz”.

It was fitting that the most famous photo of her trip was made at a tractor factory. The photo above was taken in Stalingrad at a steel plant being expanded to meet the large metal demands of the new tractor factory called Tractorstroi. Bourke-White considered the tractor factory — an American-style operation supervised by American engineers — a highlight of her Russian journey. The photo appeared in her book, Fortune, and USSR in Construction (a Soviet propaganda magazine), although in USSR in Construction, the photo was heavily edited. The background were airbrushed out and the worker’s face was retouched to create a more expressionless, and less glum mood.

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Convention hall — Chicago, 1956

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Robert Frank titled the photo above characteristically simple: ‘Convention hall — Chicago’. The atmosphere was anything but. It was 1956 and in order to whip up public interest, the Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson had declared that he would select the vice presidential nominee through a floor vote at the convention.

Two front-runners were Estes Kefauver, a senator who had represented Tennessee since 1939 and had recently been in news for his televised hearings on organized crime, and John Kennedy, a first-term senator. Kennedy had been in the news for his book  Profiles in Courage, published earlier that year and on the New York Times bestseller list for over thirty weeks, and was about to narrate a television documentary Pursuit of Happiness but was a relative unknown on the political scene. Both candidates faced fierce opposition: Kefauver from his own fellow Southerners because of his support for civil rights, and Kennedy because he was Roman Catholic.

Upon being lobbied to vote for Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy (then in the congressional delegation of Minnesota, and himself later a presidential candidate) grumbled, “All we have are farmers and Protestants.” Others were more blunt. J. Howard Edmondson, the governor of Oklahoma noted, “He’s not our kind of folks,” and Sam Rayburn, the speaker of the house, said: “If we have to take a Catholic, I hope we don’t have to take that little pissant Kennedy.” As the nomination slipped away from him, Kennedy withdrew his name from consideration, giving a speech to make nomination of Estes Kefauver unanimous. The crowd loudly cheered, and when Stevenson lost that November as everybody predicted, Kennedy became the de facto frontrunner for the 1960 election.

Frank’s photo — reminiscent of Felix Solomon’s backroom photos of European politicians — captured the energy and stress of that vice presidential fight. Men in the photo were unidentified, but the jowly man on the right was likely to be Joseph Lohman, a criminologist who was later Sheriff of Cook County and Illinois secretary of state. The man in dark glasses looked like Carmine DeSapio, the last boss of Tammany Hall, who led this party machine which had controlled New York politics for the eight decades into a brief renaissance in the 1950s.

 

Execution of a Pro-Communist Traitor

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It is often said that the act of observing sometimes changes the observation itself. Does the presence of prying photographers change things? Photographers covering conflicts or illegal activities face this dilemma. During a massacre in Dacca, Bangladesh, many photographers mused whether it would not have happened if they were not there, and whether they were invited to a ‘photo-op’. On the other hand, a recent Vice documentary is criticized for following a group of Kyrgyz men on their way to kidnap a bride without intervening.

This dilemma was posed to the French photographer Alain Mingam in Afghanistan covering Mujahedeen rebels. Largely because he was sympathetic to the Mujahedeen’s cause fighting against the Russian invaders, Mingam when he was specifically brought to a place to witness an execution. He recalled, “For someone like me who didn’t cover the Vietnam war, the mujaheddin’s battle against the biggest army in the world was David versus Goliath: those bearded, turbaned men fascinated me.”

It was July 1980, just six months after the Soviet Union had invaded its southern neighbor to forestall the collapse of a pro-Soviet government in Kabul. Condemned by an Islamic war tribunal for denouncing nine families to the Russians, the man in the photo is escorted 20 km outside Kabul for execution. “If I had not been there, the man would not have been shot and then ritually beheaded,” Mingam later reflected. For months, he admits, he could not sleep because he felt like an accomplice.

Alain Mingam had a Zelig-like presence in many defining events of last half century. In 1968, he was a student at the University of Nanterre where the events of 1968 began when ‘Dany the Red’ was disciplined.  He covered the “Carnation Revolution” in Portugal, the end of the colonels’ dictatorship in Greece, the French paratrooping intervention in Kolweizi, Zaire, and the massacres of refugees in Sabra and Shatila. In 1980, he arrived in Afghanistan posing as a tour agency operator to cover the war for Gamma.

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