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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Fuzzy Wuzzy Angel | Papua New Guinea

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On Christmas Day, 1942, George Silk, a New Zealand photographer working for the Australian Department of Information, took the photo above a Papuan man leading a wounded Australian soldier. They were near Buna at the trailhead to the Kokoda Track on the island of Papua New Guinea, where the Australian forces had been defending against the Japanese assault across the Kokoda aimed at taking Port Moresby, the island’s capital.

There were many poignant photos and images from Kokoda. Damien Parer won Australia’s first Oscar for his Cinesound newsreel Kokoda Frontline and took an iconic photo of “Wally” — the blinded Digger being led by his mates across a river.  However, general public forever associates Kokoda with ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ — the native volunteers who helped the soldiers to safety, and Silk’s photo was the perfect exemplar of sacrifice and ‘mateship’ displayed on the track and of those uncertain few months in 1942 and 1943, when war arrived on Australia’s doorstep and the country feared a Japanese invasion.

Only months earlier, a sapper working on the track had written a poem titled ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’, which was mailed to his mother and widely republished in Australian papers. With Silk’s photo, the press now have a simple and powerful image to accompany the poem. As the great Australian war correspondent Osmar White acerbically noted, “the public image of a New Guinean was transmogrified from that of a bloodthirsty cannibal with a bone through his nose to that of a dusky-skinned, mop-headed, sexless Florence Nightingale.”

After taking the photo, Silk ran back to ask the name of the wounded private (George Whittington, who later died of bush typhus in February 1943)  but not the name of the native. The latter’s identity was not discovered until decades later when he was identified as Raphael Oimbari and made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.

In 1943, Silk’s photograph was published in Life, which also recruited him. Frustrated by the strict Australian censorship, and following the example of other local journalists who left Australian agencies to work for the BBC and other agencies where they were given more freedom to report about the war, Silk left to work for Life and remained there until the magazine folded in 1972. His photo was later featured on a war memorial in Port Moresby and the medal the Australian government issued to the native carriers.

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Pinochet in Dark Glasses

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It was a time when most of South America was ruled by dictators, and an archetypal example of them was Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who cemented his image as a thuggish autocrat very early on in his reign, which began with an American-backed coup which deposed Salvador Allende 1973.

On Sept 18, six days after the coup, at Iglesia de la Gratitud Nacional, a Te Deum was held to consecrate the new government. All three living presidents endorsed the Pinochet junta (Allende having taken his own life on the day of the coup), as did the supreme court. The cardinal archbishop of Santiago led the mass, having previously refused to conduct Te Deum at a military school.

Pinochet showed up to the mass wearing dark glasses, and posed for the press. The photo above taken by Chas Gerretsen was widely re-printed on local and international papers and became popular among both the general’s supporters and opponents. Gerretsen, a Dutch-born war photographer who won the Robert Capa Gold Medal for this photo and who would later be arrested by the Pinochet regime for taking a picture of the general drinking at a press conference, remembers the day:

There was a press pass, where the press was invited to photograph the junta. I did not want to cover another of those things, so I did not register, but an hour before I said: “I have nothing to do, why don’t I go?” So I went and when I got to the street of the Church where they were doing the ceremony, there were soldiers everywhere: on the street, on the roofs. And they would not let me through. Then one of Pinochet’s men recognized me and said to let me pass. And at the next stop they stopped me again and they let me pass again and so on until I got to the church with another 10 or 15 photographers and cameramen.

The junta was all sitting with their assistants and I arrived and I started taking pictures one by one right in front of them. Other photographers took pictures of open angles. I think maybe they were afraid to get too close to the generals. If you see the photos you will see that I went one by one taking pictures and the only striking photo is that of Pinochet. It is the Hollywood dream of a dictator. That’s why people like the photo, because it portrays it as what it is. If you see the picture of General [Gustavo] Leigh, for example, he is also sitting on a chair, I think he also has his arms crossed and is wearing glasses, but he looks weak, like nothing. Like most other generals, he is a follower.”

Gerretsen requested Pinochet to take off his sunglasses, but the general refused, however, with the words: “I am Pinochet.” Later, he told Maria Eugenia Oyarzun, a journalist writing the book Augusto Pinochet, Dialogues with his History that, “The reason for the shades was simple. It was a way of telling things. Lies are discovered through the eyes, and I lied often.”

Two days after the mass, Pinochet gave a press conference, where he claimed that once the country recuperates and overcomes chaos, the junta will hand power back. Instead, Chile languished under his dark glasses for another 17 years.

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Aberfan Disaster | 1966

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At 9.15 am on the morning of  October 21, 1966, a coal slag heap at Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil in Wales. Within five minutes, it had buried a school, several cottages and a farm. In total, 144 people were killed – 116 of them young children, studying at Pantglas school.

The National Coal Board (NCB), the creaky custodian of all nationalized coal assets in Britain blamed the accident on abnormal rainfall (although it had received earlier warnings). Its grandiose chairman Lord Robens — who was driven around in a Daimler bearing the plates ‘NCB 1’ and who was known as ‘Old King Coal’ — didn’t help the matters: upon hearing of the accident, he instead went ahead with his plans to be installed as chancellor of Surrey University and showed up in Aberfan only the following day — with an outsized cigar.

By this time, images of the wreckage of Pantglas Junior School had already been widely circulated. The most iconic was that of eight-year old Susan Maybank (later Susan Robertson) carried off from the school by policeman Victor Jones. Mel Parry, then an eighteen year old apprentice photographer, remembers the day:

“I got off the bus, saw it, rang the office and asked the chief photographer if he could bring some equipment down. As soon as he arrived, I just started taking pictures. The photograph that everybody’s aware of I have no recollection of taking. It was, from what I’m led to understand, one of the first three that were ever taken of the site…. I saw the photograph later in the evening when the paper came out. I didn’t think anything of it, I didn’t even think it was mine – I didn’t find out until three days later…. Personally I wish I’d never taken it, because I wish the disaster had never happened. I just happened to be one person in the right place at the right time. Six or seven years later I got out of photography altogether. It gave me 15 minutes of fame on the back of a disaster and that is something I would not wish on anybody.”

Parry won the news category of the British Press Photographer of the Year, the youngest-ever recipient. Ironically, the full-sized photo (above) was never actually carried by any paper: it was cropped out by the darkroom assistant, who wanted to hone in on the central image of rescuer, child and wailing woman.

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Venice. 1902.

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It was where Galileo first displayed his telescope to the Doge and where Goethe first saw the sea. By the time it collapsed in 1902, Campanile di San Marco, the sixteenth century bell tower overlooking the piazza of the same name in Venice, had seen various historical and weather turmoils.

Margaret Plant recounts in Venice: Fragile City that although a crack had been seen on the tower at least a week before the collapse, no precautions had been taken. The visitors were still allowed to climb up the weekend before, even as cracks visibly multiplied, even reaching the fifth floor. On Sunday before the collaspe, the orchestras in the piazza (a planned concert by the 18th Infantry Regiment band) were finally silenced to avoid vibrations, but it was too late. On the early hours of 14 July 1902 (some said 9.47 am, others 9.52 am), the tower collapsed, injuring no one but killing a caretaker’s cat (named Mélampyge, weirdly after Casanova’s dog).

Various fake photos claiming to show the collapse circulated, and became famous around the world. The photos below are fake montages by Antonio De Paoli (left) and Giovanni Zanetti (right), both of which showed people running in the piazza away from the debris. The above more dramatic photo, produced by Angelo Zaghis, was more accurate in its portrayal of an empty square but is also likely to be fake, eventhough it was reproduced in many books on Venetian history, including Plant’s.

Despite some grumbles — most notably from Giosue Carducci, the anti-clerical unofficial poet laureate of Italy (who would soon win the Nobel Prize in Literature) — the Venice city council voted unanimously to rebuild it.  The mayor Filippo Grimani famously proclaimed, “com’era e dov’era (as it was, where it was)”. In a solemn ceremony befitting the pomp and maritime history of the Venetian Republic, the rubble from the Campanile were taken by ship for a ‘funeral’ in a ceremony that mimicked ‘La Sensa’, the annual ceremony where the Doges of Venice dropped gold rings into the sea. Tower itself was rebuilt — using many of the bricks which survived the collapse, crowned by the Marangona, the only one of the five original bells to survive the collapse (other bells were recast from the recovered fragments) — and was reopened on St. Mark’s Day 1912, exactly 1,000 years after the very first bell tower on the site was built.

 

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The Gladiators

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At the end of each season for National Rugby League (NRL) in Australia, the winning team is given a trophy fashioned after one of Australia’s enduring sporting images. Two mud-soaked men embracing each other — a symbol of camaraderie and ‘mateship’ in rugby league.

Two men were Norm Provan (left) and Arthur Summons, after whom the current trophy has been named since 2013 (earlier versions of the trophy also featured them, but was named after the cigarette manufacturer Winfield, which was forced to withdraw their sponsorship of the Premiership, following the ban on cigarette advertising). Provan and Summons were respectively the captains for St. George and Western Suburbs, and despite the photo and its subsequent history welding two men together, the giant second-rower and the diminutive halfback initially did not get along. Summons noted that he had refused to swap jumpers with Provan amidst the rumors that the referee had bet £600 on a St George win, and that the photo captured the moment when he complained about the referee’s decision to Provan.

The photo, later known as The Gladiators, was taken by the Sun-Herald photographer John O’Gready on 24th August 1963 when St George beat Western Suburbs 8-3 for the eighth of their consecutive championships premierships. Another photographer Phil Merchant took a similar picture for the Daily Telegraph but his editors chose not to run it, because Merchant took the photo vertically, which didn’t fit the horizontal space available.

The O’Gready photo went on to win numerous international awards, including the British Sport Picture of the Year award (the only Australian photo to be so honored thus far) and was considered one of the greatest sporting images. In 2007, Provan and Summons reunited to cover themselves in vaseline and pigment instead of mud to reproduce the photo for a charity.

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Y.A. Tittle (1926-2017)

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What a crazy and tumultuous year it was! Many arenas of public life were rocked, by storms political and literal, by recriminations and distrust, by escalating wars and ethnic conflicts, tarnished by sexual assault revealations, buffeted by the rising nationalist, racist, and toxic rhetoric. I thought we should end the year with a fitting image of exhaustion, resilience, and hope.

Y.A. Tittle, the quarterback for the New York Giants, who died earlier this year showed all those qualities in his last game as a pro footballer. 1964. It was Sept. 20, 1964, and ‘Big John’ Baker – 6-foot-7, 279-pound Pittsburgh Steelers lineman – had ploughed through him. Tittle, suffering from a concussion and bruised ribs, knelt in the end zone, his helmet gone and bleeding from two cuts on his forehead. He looked double his 37 years, many newspapers commented, and he soon retired.

The moment produced one of the most enduring images in sports, a photo which earned a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Adding to the humanity was the background: a handful of fans sitting on the lawn chairs at field level, and mostly empty end-zone bleachers. It encapsulated the agony of defeat so well that it was for the longest time one of only three pictures in the lobby of the National Press Photographers Association headquarters, alongside with the Iwo Jima and the Hindenburg photos.

The photo was above taken by Dozier Mobley covering the Steelers-Giants game for The Associated Press. Another photographer, Morris Berman, took an almost identical image for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but his editor refused to publish it ‘because of its lack of action’. Berman instead entered his photo in a contest later, and it won the 1964 National Headliner award for best sports photograph. Two versions of the photo are frequently mistaken for one another, not least by Tittle, who used the Berman photo and credited it to Mobley in his autobiography, Nothing Comes Easy: My Life in Football.

Mobley remembered that day inside the Pitt Stadium: “But I missed the best shot, we all did. After that picture, we put our cameras down. Then, there he was, looking up at the sky with a terrible grimace. And there was no time to get it.”

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Deep Sorrow, 1968

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When Coretta Scott King discovered that the press pool covering the funeral of her husband included no black photographers, she let it known that if Moneta J. Sleet Jr. was not allowed into the church, she would let no photographers into the church.

Sleet’s photo of Bernice King tearfully clasping her mother inside the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where her father had been the pastor for the last eight years won a Pulitzer Prize, making Sleet the first African American journalist to win that award. He remembered that emotion-fraught moment, five days after Dr. King was shot dead:

“I looked over and saw Mrs. King consoling her daughter. I was photographing the child as she was fidgeting on her mama’s lap. Professionally, I was doing what I had been trained to do, and I was glad of that because I was very involved emotionally. If I hadn’t been there working, I would have been off crying like everybody else.”

Sleet had known the Kings for over a decade, since 1956, when he photographed the couple with another daughter on the steps of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He even travelled with Dr. King when the latter went to Stockholm to collect his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

The photo was titled Deep Sorrow by Sleet and was first featured in Ebony Magazine, for which he captured Dr. King and other leading African American celebrities of his day – from Muhammad Ali to Stevie Wonder. He accompanied Vice President Richard M. Nixon’s tour of newly independent Africa nations, and took a famous photo of Kwame Nkrumah on Ghana’s independence day. Before King’s funeral brought him the Pulitzer, he had been at another forlorn occasion when he also photographed Betty Shabazz at the funeral of her slain husband, Malcolm X. His Pulitzer also transcended photography: he was the first black man to win the prize (after poet Gwendolyn Brooks in 1950 who was the first African American to win), and the first black person to win the Pulitzer for journalism.

 

Morning Mist, Franklin River

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“Could you vote for a party that will destroy this?” asked the bold headline in white above the photo in 1983. The party in question has been in power in Australia since 1975, led by patrician Malcolm Fraser. Fraser was a transformative prime minister, who gave the aborigines of Australia more control over their traditional lands, encouraged immigration from Asia, welcoming the Vietnamese boat people, and led the pressure against apartheid in Rhodesia and South Africa.

But by early 1983, the economy was in a rut, Fraser’s parliamentary majority had been reduced and the future of his government rested on an attempt to dam a river in Tasmania. For years, this dam had been festering on the public consciousness: a fledgling Green movement was trying to save the river through concerts, candle-lit vigils and a write-in campaign, which reached its feverpitch in late 1982 when 42% of voters wrote in “NO DAMS” at a by-election in the state of Victoria.

Central to these campaigns were photographs of Tasmania by Peter Dombrovskis, who photographed the state for widely-subscribed annual wilderness calendars. Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend, Franklin River showed a section of the Franklin River which would be submerged by the proposed dam; environmental groups took out full-page color advertisements featuring the photo in Sydney and Melbourne papers a few days before the election.

The photo was often cited as the reason behind Fraser’s Liberal Party’s unexpected defeat — there was a swing of 24-seats, the largest defeat of a sitting government in Australia since 1949. Ironically, in Tasmania, the Liberals held all five seats, revealing the stark dichotomy between locals who preferred economic development and outsiders who wanted to preserve a national patrimony — a divide that is still present in many a conservation debate today.

A court case followed, pitting the local government against the incoming Labor government which promised to cancel the dam. In the seminal Commonwealth vs. Tasmania, the High Court of Australia stopped the dam’s construction, but Tasmania was given a hefty subsidy as compensation. The high profile campaign to save the Franklin and the ensuing fracas ended further dam proposals in Tasmania, and in wider Australia too, there had been no major dam constructions ever since.

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Yesterday, President Donald Trump signed two orders announcing his plan reduce the amount of federally protected land in the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah. I visited the area earlier this year, and do understand the economic arguments around them. Yet, this act sets a dangerous precedent for other National Parks in the United States. This corner of America had been here before, most notably when the Glen Canyon dam destroyed 250 square miles of rock cliffs and canyons, prehistoric and Native American settlements, and a natural amphitheater of almost mythic beauty — the Cathedral of the West. If you are outraged about it, please do reach out to your elected representatives.

 

 

 

Cyprus, 1956

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Sometimes a photo is famous, not just because of the contents of the photo, but also because of the photographer behind the lens. Nicos Sampson has a dubious claim as an established photographer who had the most (in)famous second career. In the 1950s, as a reporter and photographer for the Times of Cyprus, Nicos Sampson would run to the scene whenever a policeman was murdered in Nicosia. His photos were raw and timely, as if he preternaturally knew where the next murder would happen.

In many instances, he did. Cyprus was then still ruled by Britain, and a militant group called EOKA was calling for an union with Greece; EOKA would regularly attack and killed civilians and British policemen in Nicosia’s Ledra Street. Nicos Sampson would scoop Ledra murders time and again, as he was secretly a member of EOKA and involved in the killings. He would twice face the death sentence as “the executioner of Murder Mile”, as Ledra Street was then infamously known.

Later, Sampson would also be accused of atrocities during the 1964 post-independence fighting that tore the Greek and Turkish communities apart on the island. He conspired with the Greek junta to violently overthrow Archbishop Makarios, the moderate president of the island who was amenable to both communities. After this overthrow, Sampson was himself president — something in the words of one Turkish Cypriot leader, “as unacceptable as Hitler’s becoming president of Israel”. In any event, Sampson’s presidency lasted for eight days, as Turkey invaded Cyprus and his patrons the Greek junta fell.

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I could not find Nikos Sampson’s photos, but both photos on this page were taken by Robert Egby, also working at The Cyprus Mail. The photo above was taken on September 28, 1956 just outside Cyprus Mail office on Ledra Street. Two slain men were newly-arrived British intelligence officers. The assassin, who ran away just out of frame, was thought to be Sampson himself.

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Another famous Egby photo showed the death of a Turkish Cypriot man Bonici Mompalda. Momplada’s Greek Cypriot fiancée Drosoulla Demetriadou sat beside the body in a photo which made the front page of all British dailies (except The Times, which didn’t feature a photo on the front page until a few years later). Egby received an Honourable Mention in The British Press Pictures of the Year 1956 for this photo. Sampson was again thought to be the culprit for this murder.

More details here.