Deep Sorrow, 1968


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


“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.

FRC042_Franklin advertisement1983corrected.jpg


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


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.


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.


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.




Tunisia | Dominique Berretty


After the defeat at Diên Biên Phu, France’s attention turned to its African colonies, whose soldiers had fought in Vietnam and saw the imperial power humbled and humiliated. The insurrection in Algeria began on November 1954, just fourteen weeks after France signed the Geneva Accords, ending its disastrous war in Indochina.

Rather than face a series of conflagrations throughout the Maghreb, the new Socialist government of Guy Mollet gave Tunisia and Morocco independence in March 1956. Algeria was to be held on at all costs, but Tunisia and Morocco were dispensable, and thus they became first countries in Africa to regain their independence from a colonial power.

Yet France maintained a selection of bases across Tunisia (although the Fourth Republic fell and General de Gaulle was returned to power, he evacuated five bases and 50,000 soldiers off Tunisia), most notably at Bizerte, a strategic naval base on the Mediterranean, through which France was to conduct its operations during the war in Algeria. For the Tunisians, the base was an affront to their sovereignty, and in July 1961, they surrounded and blockaded it. De Gaulle’s response was swift and decisive — a rapid strike which killed 700 Tunisians — so decisive that by October, the Bizerte town council was able to crow: “Today’s Bizerte is essentially a French creation….. France managed in less than eighty years to change the face of Bizerte more than the preceding millennium had done.”

In a little over two years, an exhausted France would return Bizerte to Tunisia, as its war in Algeria unraveled.


The photo above is taken by Dominique Berretty who was propitiously in Tunisia as the Bizerte crisis began. Berretty took many famous war photos throughout the 1950s and the 60s, covering the border crisis between India and Pakistan, and later the war in Vietnam, where his photo taken in 1965 of an American soldier watching a burning Vietnam village became a visual shorthand for inhumanity of war.



Pedro Luis Raota


When he died early at the age of 52 in 1986, Pedro Luis Raota was already a celebrated photographer, both in his native Argentina and outside. The “Ansel Adams of Argentina”, he was dubbed, and his photos routinely won awards on international competitions. He cofounded and then served as the first director of The Instituto Superior de Arte Fotográfico and was also controversially a favored photographer of the Argentine military junta which loved his photos which sentimentalized and lionized the country’s working class poor.

Born in Chaco, one of the poorest provinces of Argentina, Raota himself had humble origins making passport pictures in rural areas. His first major success came when he was 32 years old when he won the first Prize in a photographic contest organized by Mundo Hispánico, a magazine in Madrid with his work on lives of the gaucho and their descendants. His lens focused on the dark wrinkles of the gaucho families, marking their hard lives, and unbridled horses of the Pampa Húmeda. (The gaucho — the nomadic horsemen who defined the Argentine and Uruguayan pampas from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century — enjoyed heroic status similar to that of the cowboys in the United States).


Like Adams, Raota was a master of the darkroom; his images are always dramatic, with an exaggerated use of chiaroscuro. His original signed prints, each one hand printed by himself on Chlorobromide paper, are extremely rare and command high prices. It was widely rumored that Raota was engaged by the junta to produce propaganda, but the details were murky. When the Argentine junta collapsed, many people who wished to hide their close relationship with the regime destroyed many junta-era documents, complicating any investigation into the matter.

What was undeniable was that Raota’s photographic books were distributed in many countries though embassies throughout the junta years in a PR campaign. Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales, the national oil company, also used Raota’s photos in its calendars and promotional materials during the junta years. His photos represented a sanitized Argentina, wished and willed by the junta: an Argentina of romance, loyalty and community, depicted in period or regional costumes; a nation and a people untroubled by wars or economic ruination; wholesome, rural, pristine, conservative.



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William Albert Allard’s West


National Geographic named it one of the “greatest photographs of the American West.” David Schonauer, the famed editor-in-chief of American Photo wrote, “there is a fine line between cliche and archetype….. [this is] the latter,” noting that the photo reminded him of the elegiac song, “The Street of Laredo.” The photographer, William Albert Allard remembers taking the photo in Nevada in 1979:

“We are in this little Mountain City bar …. one of the buckeroos a big man named Stan Kendall, he was sitting on the bar stool at the very end of the bar. He had this kind of look on his face and I am always looking at faces because I think they are so revealing and faces are a part of so much of my photographs. When it comes down to it, what i really wanted to do in my pictures is to look into someone, rather than to look at them.

You know by looking at this photograph you get the feel of this place, the feel of the life, his attitude. Was I thinking consciously when I was looking into Stan Kendall? No. Oh, hell, no. Wasn’t thinking that. But I am reacting to what I am seeing.

This one is a moment. Everything there is absolutely a moment. And that look on Stan Kendall’s face — he kinda had that leaving look. And in fact, the next morning, Stan Kendall rolled up his bedroll and gathered up his saddle and his gear and he just left the ranch, to go on further down the road.”

William Albert Allard was a keen documentarian of hardscrabble landscapes. He started out at National Geographic as intern, taking photos of an Amish community in Lancaster Country, including a memorable one of a young boy and his pet guinea-pig.

Mountain City where he took the above photo was an epitome of these small marginal communities. For Gregory Martin’s memoir about growing up in this unincorporated town of thirty or so people, the New York Times wrote, “Life is Social Security checks, memories and the losing battle with time and the gale-toothed cold”. Allard worked for National Geographic for 50 years until the magazine closed down their staff photography department in 2015 to merge with Fox.


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A Kidnapping in Chad

We don’t really hear much about a lot of countries until something horrible happens there; extra attention if that catastrophe happens to westerners. Then, glaring spotlight of international media becomes focused for one brief moment, and then disappears.

CHAD.Tibesti desert. The Affaire CLAUSTRE.

In April 1974, the world’s attention briefly turned to Chad, an African country bigger in area than South Africa or France, when in the northern part of the country, at Bardaï, in the Tibesti Mountains, a group of rebels kidnapped a German doctor and two French citizens. One Frenchman managed to escape and the doctor was ransomed by the German government, but the second archaeologist — Francoise Claustre — was held hostage.

Her ordeal put the Chad rebellion on the frontpages of newspapers, as did her husband Pierre’s status as a senior development bureaucrat for the French government. The French government which had deployed a thousand French soldiers in the region at the request of the Chad government to contain the rebellion of Tibesti, was in the midst of a fraught presidential election, and responded ineptly: it sent a soldier to negotiate with the rebels (with a secret mission to sow dissent among the rebels). When this plot was revealed, he was tried by a “revolutionary tribunal”, and hanged.


Most of France simply believed she would be executed, but Pierre struggled to get his wife out. Leading the negotiations himself, he joined his wife as a hostage and brought the world’s media attention to the Toubous rebels and their leader Hissène Habré. Habré, formerly educated in France with his perfect French and denunciations of colonialism, would be affectionately nicknamed the ‘Sciences-Po Guerrilla’ in the media. Among the media who came were two prominent photojournalists Marie Laure De Decker and Raymond Depardon (photos above). After they flew back from Tibesti, they were arrested by the Niger government, which also confiscated their films, but their subsequent photos and videos — serialized on the covers of Paris Match week after week — galvanized the French government to take action.

After pressure from the rebel’s main patron, the Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi, the Claustres were released; Francoise spent thirty-three months in captivity. Depardon made a movie about the Claustre Affair, La Captive du désert in 1990De Decker continued to photograph Chad and published a magisterial book “For Chad”, containing many photos of Habré and his fighters. Habré who eventually turned on Gaddafi finally seized power in 1982 and ruled for eight ruinous years. Last year, he was found guilty of human-rights abuses, including rape, sexual slavery and murder of 40,000 people, and sentenced to life in prison. De Decker lamented this fate of the charismatic rebel leader she fondly called “Hissène”, “When your friends of yesterday become killers, it’s hard.”


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Spain — A Look Back

Here on Iconic Photos, we have seen many photos taken in modern Spain. The country loomed large in the twentieth century mythos and imagination — starting with a disastrous Civil War that drew in many public intellectuals of the day and now seen as a dress rehearsal for the Second World War.

In the 1930s, Catalonia attempted two declarations of autonomy, claiming itself a state within a federal structure. This, along with rising socialism, communism, and anarchism,  gave cause to the rightwing reactionaries and finally an all-out Civil War. As it took place as picture magazines are getting popular, the Spanish Civil War was covered by photojournalists and yellow journalists alike. The most famous images of the war were by Robert Capa and by Dora Maar, of her lover Picasso painting Guernica.

Post-civil war Spain was a hodgepodge of repressions and idiosyncrasies. The Castilian Spanish was declared the sole official language, with all foreign films (and films originally made in local regional tongues) were force-dubbed. Castilian names were the only ones allowed. Even the names of football clubs were changed into Castilian versions.

Deference to the Catholic Church was extreme; after all, Franco had ruled Spain as “Caudillo by the grace of God” as his coins proclaimed. civil marriage and divorce were made illegal and the Church was given power to censor any writing or speech it objected. Cleavages and legs in photos were covered up, James Bond novels lost its sex scenes, and over 4,000 songs were banned, mostly for hilarious reasons. The country’s main scientific body, CSIC, was left in the hands of Opus Dei. The leading primary school history textbook, Yo soy español opened with the retelling of the story of the Garden of Eden.

The Generalissimo himself was an odd patriarch in a medieval mold. A mummified right arm of St Teresa of Avila always traveled with him. The state media mentioned him in the same veneration as Augustus Caesar or Napoleon, and many towns changed or added to their names ‘Franco’. He embraced a Austrian con-man who insisted that petrol could be made from water and a secret herbal extract, and strove for years to ban the tomato-pelting festival in Valencia.

On his ugly deathbed, Franco was already an anachronism, but his rule was widely seen as the sole unifier of the fissiporous Spanish nation. The experts worried that old hatreds and new violence would flare up. (Indeed in the elections of 1977, Spain voted along socio-geographical lines almost identical to the elections of 1936). The improbable transition was completed by two figures: King Juan Carlos — Franco’s designated successor and Adolfo Suárez. Four months after Franco’s death, the king signaled that the old order was ending by speaking banned Catalan language. He also engineered centrist Suárez to become Prime Minister. Suárez, Franco’s director-general of state broadcasting, succeeded in ridding the government of the last members of the old regime and forcing through a democratic constitution.

It is this constitution, confirmed in a second referendum in December 1978, that is now in question as the Catalans move towards independence. Under it, the powers of the Church were rolled back: there was to be no official religion, although Catholicism was acknowledged as a ‘social fact’, and rights of autonomy were granted for the country’s historic regions, but under a proviso in the Article II, which outlined “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, common and indivisible patria of all Spaniards.”

It was an exceedingly delicate and dangerous operation, for the threat of a new civil war loomed throughout. A series of bloody bombings by the Basque separatists marred the transition. Economic malaise was high and with Catalonia, the Basque region, Galicia and Andalucia all seeking separatism,  Suárez — now on his fifth coalition government — was pushed out by his own party in January 1981.

The next month, as the national assembly, or Cortes, convened to appoint Suárez’s successor, a Civil Guard colonel staged a coup attempt. Another general requested the king to dissolve the Cortes and install a military government. Juan Carlos, who had been carefully maneuvered to play a modest role within the Francoist dictatorship, firmly stood his ground and refused. The coup petered out, giving the Cortes an opportunity to cut the military budget and pass a bill legalizing divorce.


Suárez made a duke and a Grandee of Spain; in 2008 when Juan Carlos visited Suárez to invest him with the highest honor of the Spanish monarchy, the Order of the Golden Fleece, Suárez was already amidst Alzheimer’s disease. He could no longer remember that he had been prime minister. A poignant photo of Suárez with the king’s arm wrapped around him, taken by his son Adolfo Suárez Illana, was reproduced in all Spanish media and later awarded the paper El País‘s Ortega y Gasset Award. The photo had been an idea floated by singer Julio Iglesias to Illana, who passed it on to the king. The palace proposed to send a photographer, but Illana declined, taking it himself.

On Suárez’s death in 2014, the Economist wrote, “the burly king with his arm round the shoulder of his diminutive first prime minister, in shirtsleeves. The two men were walking away from the camera as if to say, job done. As indeed it was.” Their work is now being transformed by Catalonia’s move towards independence. Catalonia, which contains a fifth of Spain’s economy and a quarter of its exports, has strong economic reasons for going it alone (and legitimate historical reasons), but recent weeks have shown that it risks awaking Spain’s past demons.



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Pinatubo Erupts


In March 1991, when a series of earthquakes hit the western side of the island of Luzon along the Zambales Mountains, locals awoke to the reality that in the middle of the Zambales range, there might be a dormant volcano. Pinatubo — quiet since before the lands under it were named the Philippines — erupted a few months later, in June.

The explosion was to be the second largest of the 20th century (second only to that of Novarupta in Alaska in 1912). Unlike the Alaskan volcano, half a million people lived next to Pinatubo and several important river systems stem from its peak. A logistical and environmental nightmare loomed. Adding to the woes, a typhoon was ripped through the island, mixing Pinatubo’s ash with rains, which created concrete-like mud that collapsed roofs and buildings miles away.

Many photojournalists came to the area, and the most iconic shot of the explosion — and perhaps of any volcanic eruption — was that of a Ford Fierra fleeing a gargantuan cloud of pyroclastic flows, a fast-moving current of hot gas up to 450 mph and 1,000 °C strong.  [See a pyroclastic flow in action on video here.] The photo was taken by Alberto Garcia,  chief photographer of Tempo, a tabloid affiliated with the Manila Bulletin, who remembers taking the photo about 20-30 km away from the caldera:

“It took me 30 minutes to prepare my things and headed back to Zambales where the [volcanologists] were stationed. … So everybody jumped into our vehicles and I was trying to put on my gas masked when I saw a blue pick-up ahead of that beautiful wall of gray. I opened the door and tried shooting the picture with my 50mm lens but it was too tight, so I decided to change the lens and used the 24mm instead and made sure my setting was correct and shot eight frames. Although I had only eight shots, I rewound the entire roll of film, keeping it safe in my pocket.”

Garcia won the World Press Photo, in the nature and environment category. The photo was included in Time’s “Greatest Images of the 20th Century” (2001) and National Geographic’s “100 Best Pictures” (2001).


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Hilmar Pabel

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The year 1968 began uneasily in Czechoslovakia. The previous October, a group of students in Prague’s Technical University staged a demonstration to protest electricity cuts at their dormitories; their shouts of “More light!” were a pointed rebuke towards the stifling rule by the Communist party. So, when the new year came, the party yielded by electing a new First Secretary, Alexander Dubček.

The 47-year old was a compromise candidate — Dubček had carefully cultivated his bland and ambiguous personality for years. Now, finally with power, he changed positions. A reform program — timid by international standards, but ambitious in the eyes of Communist cadres — was launched to create ‘‘Communism with a human face.’’ The flowering of freedom of speech and press, freedom to travel abroad, and relaxation of secret police activities followed, but it was brief. A worried Soviet Union rolled its tanks into Czechoslovakia in August 1968.

On the first day of invasion, German photographer Hilmar Pabel took the photo above of a distraught woman carrying a photo of Dubcek and Czechoslovak President Ludvík Svoboda. Pabel was a man whose stature as a humanist photographer would have been greater had he not been a propagandist for Nazism during the Second World War. In a photoessay for Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, Pabel documented Jews living in the Lublin Ghetto as shifty and avaricious: living in dirt and hiding consumer goods and foods in the cellars.


After the war, Pabel was briefly imprisoned for his work, but got out to work with Red Cross to photograph children displaced by war to help them reunite with their parents and family. By the 50s and 60s, his reputation has recovered, and his works were published by Life, Paris Match, and Stern.  In 1961, he was the recipient of the Cultural Prize of the German Society for Photography, followed by two World Press Photo awards. Two photoessays he filed from Vietnam (Story of the Little Orchid, 1964 and Thuan Lives Again, 1968) were widely praised, although some critics scoffed that he was reaching back into his propagandist past to portray American army hospital staff as Good Samaritans.


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The Tale of Two Photos

Disclaimer: some opinions which follow may be upsetting to some readers. Sections IV to VI are my own personal opinions/rants. 



Trafalgar Square. March 1990.

London erupts in a frenzy of riots, protesting poll taxes — an unpopular tax reform that would mark the beginning of the end for Margaret Thatcher’s eleven-year premiership.

A photo is published, with the caption “A West End shopper argues with a protester”. The contrast is sharp: the well-dress lady, her gold watch glinting is across the barricades from a leather-jacketed punk, his hair tightly shaved, a half lit cigarette in hand. Except that by her own admission, the woman is shouting not at the man, but at the police restraining him. “I look like the typical conservative middle-England Tory voter (which I’m not), objecting to the protest. The truth is, I felt bloody angry that day,” she wrote to the Guardian.



Birmingham, Alabama. May 1963.

Martin Luther King Jnr is in the middle of a series of protests, boycotts, and marches in the southern city, which he has called the most segregated city in America.

A German shepherd lunges at a young Black teen. A white officer behind the dog looms large in his dark sunglasses. A photographer takes the photo. The New York Times publishes it across three columns on the front page, above the fold. The president notes he is appalled, and the Secretary of State Dean Rusk intones that the photo will, “embarrass our friends abroad and make our enemies joyful.”

Except that the photo probably didn’t capture a moment of police brutality nor was it clear that a confrontation between the teen and the officer followed. There are three of them: the police officer Dick Middleton of the city’s K9 Unit; Walter Gadsden, the black teen; and Leo, the German shepherd. I will let Malcolm Gladwell take it from here:

“Gadsden and Middleton just look startled — the way people do if they unexpectedly bump into each other. Gadsden has his knee up as a reflex, and his hand on Middleton as if to steady himself. Middleton has one hand on Gadsden and his other arm is flexed. He’s yanking back on the leash. Leo has freaked out and he’s trying to restrain him….. Middleton’s not letting Leo loose on Gadsden; quite the opposite.” 



I have written about both photos before. The reactions to London photo are muted; the comments under the Alabama photo were virulent. It touched a nerve: some accused me of rewriting a crucial piece of American history. Others demanded ‘citations’ (not something I am often asked on this blog). One commenter accused me of rehashing an unsubstantiated claim from a racist website, mainly because that’s the only other mention of the story online.

I wrote about the Alabama photo in 2010 (most likely using hard-copy library books, I don’t remember). Since then, I was glad to see the story confirmed in Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘David and Goliath’ (2013), and mentioned again in his excellent Revisionist History: this summer. There were a few small pieces of discrepancies between Gladwell’s sources and mine: for instance, Gladwell mentioned Gadsden broke the dog’s jaw.  I wrote down that Gadsden attacked the dog (after being already bitten in his stomach). Did the photo show the moment the dog attacked Gadsden or the moment a few seconds later when Gadsden fought back? His hand clutching Middleton who was most likely separating the two was another mystery.

I remember the only other item in my library’s index cards system on Gadsden was an interview, conducted on May 25, 1996 at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. As Gladwell would note in his podcast, this is a troubling interview, in which Gadsden noted that neither he nor his family benefited from the Civil Rights Movement, that he preferred the term “colored”. You should just go and check out the whole podcast here.


This is a lengthy blog post. This post is as much about the history of the Alabama photo (and photos in general) as about people who use them, and build their narratives on them.

The men in front and behind the lenses are just small bit players in a lengthy process which involved editors, article writers, and publishers. Last month, I had a lunch with a reporter friend. His editor had cut a few paragraphs of an article he wrote, citing lack of column spaces, thus resulting in a piece which was more one-sided than he intended. This sort of things happen all the time — sometimes by accident, sometimes because writers and editors have their own agenda, sometimes because it fits the prevailing attitudes, prejudices, or narratives.

Photography is an exceptionally tricky medium because of this. On one hand, many insists that ‘seeing is believing’. More realistically, it is still manipulated. Photography in its short existence has tread a fine line between information and art.

But art is interpretive. Art has the artists’ views, feelings, and emotions embedded in it. That’s why we debate about its parameters and intent: is an art piece ‘punching up’ or ‘punching down’? Is it currying favor with the elite or defending the downtrodden with its message. That’s why a photoessay like Martin Parr’s The Last Resort (seemingly mocking the vacation habits of British lower classes) was so controversial artistically.


A recent comic gives a powerful discourse on our visceral reactions when our beliefs are challenged: sometimes we accept them easily. Sometimes, we fight back. When I told you the story about London photo, did you accept it easily? When the Alabama photo is discussed, did your mind fight back?

Let’s step back. When you hear phrases like ‘globalization’, ‘single-payer healthcare system’, ‘net neutrality’, ‘gun rights’, ‘late-term abortions’, or ‘#blacklivesmatter’, what do you do? Do you read beyond headlines, beyond captions, and listen to the other side’s concerns and grievances? or do you just stick to your own pre-formed notions?

You might struggle to remain fair or neutral.

Remember that reporters, photographers, and editors are people like you too.


Gladwell and I are not impartial either. We have our own biases and blindspots. Neither of us are Americans; we write about American politics in a detached way. Many a commenter has noted that I am unqualified to write about race or racial politics. Maybe I am.

What we — and all of us — are: sum totals of our upbringings, families, surroundings. We inevitably view the world through these experiences. There is nothing wrong with that. We just need to know everyone is looking through different lenses.

I finished university just a few years before ‘trigger warnings’ became a thing. When a controversial speaker came to the campus, we protested but then we sat down and listened. We didn’t disinvite them. Modern world is a messy clash of ideas, and of narratives. We shouldn’t stifle them. We should debate them, with facts and actions. Even when the ideas are disagreeable and dangerous, we should listen to them, and understand where they come from, and what sort of environments and societies enabled them. Otherwise, we would end up teaching and learning sanitized versions of ideas and information — history with its rough edges sanded off.


I wrote this because of a conversation I had with someone on my Patreon. In their words, “Patreon is an Internet-based platform that allows content creators to build their own subscription content service.”

It has been a few months since I started Patreon, and it has given me a few creative ideas and encouragements. I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be more sustainable and growth-focused. Readers who subscribe on Patreon might have access to a few blog posts early; chance to request this topic or that topic; or to participate in some polls. Here is the link to my Patreon:

David Douglas Duncan | Korean War

On the morning of 25 June 1950, when the North Korean tanks rolled across the 38th parallel into South Korea, they found the latter’s troops completely unprepared. There were miscalculations from all sides. America’s supremo in the east, General MacArthur, dismissed CIA warnings that the North Koreans would attack in June. Stalin, emboldened by the American apathy towards the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, insisted to Mao that Americans were too afraid to fight another war. As for President Truman, he had been roundly criticized by the Congress for the Communist takeover of China the previous year. With mid-term elections just a few months away, and he himself still intending to run for a second term, he wasn’t going to appear soft. “By God I’m going to let them have it,” he remarked on the evening of the attack.


Others have won Pulitzers for covering the war, but the greatest collection of pictures about the Korean War was produced by David Douglas Duncan (still alive as of mid-2017 at age of 101!). On September 4th, Duncan joined the men of Baker Company across the Naktong river — one of his images was later chosen for a commemorative stamp. He remembered:

“I cabled LIFE’s editors in August from Tokyo and I told them I was heading back to Korea to try and get what I called ‘a wordless story’ that conveyed the message, simply, ‘This is war.’ Not long after that I was covering the fighting near the Naktong River, and I made the picture of Marines running past a dead enemy soldier, their fatigues absolutely soaked to the chest with mud and muck and god knows what else. And this ended up as the cover image for the book, This Is War!, when it came out a year later.”

His photos which appeared in LIFE on September 18th underlined the struggles of fighting men at front. One of the most memorable was that of corporal machine gunner Leonard Hayworth, was crying at the loss of all but two of his squad (above). Another much-reproduced photo captured Ike Fenton, commanding officer of Baker Company receiving the news that his forces are nearly out of ammos and that he could expect no supplies or troops to secure this ‘no-name’ ridge. (below) If another attack came, they (and Duncan) stood to be wiped out.


Now known as a ‘forgotten war’ — commemorated by a TV series that lasted longer than the war itself — the Korean War cemented the American hegemony in the Pacific. After much dawdling, Truman had now drawn a ‘line-in-the-sand’. Some historians note that not much South Korea, but also Japan and Taiwan were saved by the war.