Recently I spoke at a conference about the American conflict in Vietnam. This was the first time I had presented a paper at a conference and it was interesting to receive responses after the talk. Some people were really excited by what I had said, some people wanted to argue with me, some people wanted to quiz me, and one guy said this:
“Do you think you are kind of ruining the photo by analysing it so much? I mean, these are iconic images, and you’ve got the photographers talking about them, talking about the moment they took them; don’t you think that you’re reading more into it than is really there?”
It’s a familiar cry. As someone whose passion for photography is born out of questioning, analysing and reading the images, it’s not a sentiment I share. However, I am grateful for the question because it’s got me thinking about why it is important to analyse images, why it’s especially important to analyse the image beyond what the photographer has to say about it, and why I do not consider myself – nor anyone else whose analyses I’ve found engaging – to be ‘over-reading’ the image. So, I would like to revisit the old issue of the need for new analysis. I don’t want to polarise the already divided camps of those who consider themselves ‘common sense’ photographers and the ‘high-minded’ critics. I do believe in a fluid and supportive exchange between those who take photographs and those who analyse photographs. And hey, you know what, sometimes analysts are photographers and vice versa – which is pretty lovely. So, avoiding all the ‘them and us’ rhetoric, here is why I do not think I am ‘over-analysing’ or ‘ruining’ the photograph by talking about it so much:
First of all, I think it’s impossible for any analysis to ‘ruin’ the image. Even if it refutes what has gone before it, I think the key is to see the analysis as adding to the chain of conversation about the image. It’s not my idea vs. the photographer’s idea. It’s my idea plus the photographer’s idea. In fact, there can be many ideas about an image and they can all be valid. Yes, in the spirit of good debate we must pit analyses against one another, but the debate is a kind of playground where these things get thrown about – it doesn’t have to be a battleground for the life or death of an idea.The arguments can co-exist. They jostle for attention, they flow and become entangled with one another, but whatever the tension, a good argument still contains meaning. Two good arguments that pull in opposite directions both still contain meaning. So, yes, at the conference, Don McCullin had said some very sincere and interesting things about the circumstances of some of his ‘iconic’ images, but that doesn’t mean someone – anyone – can’t add to the meaning of that photo any more. It’s only democratic after all. Images change over time – they gather connotations, narratives diverge, they are used in new contexts which invert meanings. This is a brilliant thing. This keeps images current, complex and engaging. This is not the ruination of a purity. This is the celebration and growth of a piece of culture. Let’s not make actual ‘icons’ of images or photographers – they have much to give, but they are only the beginning of the life of an image. When I analyse, I don’t expect to defeat all the definitions that have gone before mine, and I don’t seek to. I hope to add to this pot of meaning, to stir it up a bit. It’s not an act of combat.
As an example of how meaning grows, rather than kills parts of itself off, we could look at a couple of images that I was in fact talking about during the conference. The first had its own cultural and political life before the second came along, and the second inverted and completed a narrative when it appeared. One changed the other, but both still exist with discreet meanings. The first is the ‘iconic’ image of a small girl, running down a road, screaming in pain from the napalm that is burning her skin:
It is an image that defined the morally reprehensible status of America’s war in Vietnam. It became the symbol for all that was wrong with the conflict: when young girls are fleeing napalm attacks, what hope for the liberation of the Southern Vietnamese? What hope for the Americans to be saviours rather than aggressors?
It is also, just to keep things complex, a still from a video, which somewhat changes its status. As a still image, it is an icon, but as something taken from moving footage, it also pertains to a different kind of document with a different impact.
Then in 1995, this portrait was made of the ‘napalm girl’, Kim Phuc, who was now grown up and living in Canada:
This photo alters the status of the first. Twenty-three years later, a ‘happy ending’ is wilfully added to the first image. My argument was that this Madonna-esque depiciton of Phuc, the damage of her scars weighed against the new life of her baby son’s perfect skin, figured perfectly the kind of healing that the American public needed after the failure of the war. She had gone from suffering Christ child to an Oriental Mary offering rebirth, redemption and forgiveness. This is further illustrated by her speech at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in 1996 where she spoke of forgiveness and a truly peaceful world (1). Her words and her body end up acting as a symbol for the power of the human spirit to overcome. In my opinion, this was perfect for wider American discourses – which largely seek out a Christian framework within which to understand suffering – as it gave the American public, veterans or otherwise, a suffering which had meaning. The chaos and trauma of the first image became a necessary precursor to the ‘overcome’ of the second image. This implies that the suffering was necessary for Phuc and the American nation in order for them to gain an insight into the true [Christian] value of life: love, peace, forgiveness. (2)
I find this morally troubling to say the least. It is not that Phuc’s own agency is overridden by such a narrative: she herself is a Christian and makes a good job of speaking at private and public events about her experience and her ethics. My anxiety lies in the fact that the second image gives a meaning to the first that allows it to be reconciled into the narrative of America’s Goodness and Righteousness. Despite it’s mistakes, America comes out as an agent of ‘the bigger plan’; suffering as route to redemption. Through the addition of the second image to the first, America, despite its downfall post-Vietnam, was able to reclaim the Godly position. A much needed narrative twist for the psyche of the nation, and a deeply disturbing reversion to the kind of thinking that caused the tragedy in Vietnam in the first place.
Whether you agree with my reading or not, it is clear that the second image changed and exists alongside the meaning of the first image. It’s a kind of fractured co-existence of narratives that, in the end, collapse into one another, but also can be said to remain separate and original.
As for ‘reading too much into it’. Well, I’ve got to say the first time I heard that was when I was in an English Literature class at secondary school. I’ve also heard it from my own English Lit. students when I try to draw their opinions on a poem: “But, would the poet have actually thought about all this? Like, really? Wouldn’t they just have like, er, written the poem? Come on, they didn’t think of all this stuff we’re talking about!” To this I usually say: First of all, yes, I assure you they did think about a lot of this stuff. Secondly, it doesn’t matter if they did or didn’t think of all this stuff because WE get to say what the poem means, how it’s working – not them. I remember feeling this way myself; wondering if we were kind of over-doing it in English class, and then I remember the brilliant moment when the meaning of something opens up to you. Suddenly, you get to play with it, explore it. Rather than seeing the poem (or photo) as this one little, tight, solid object that’s just simply there; something you can’t interact with, you suddenly become part of it. You get to have a conversation with it.
To all those who fear the ‘over-read’ or who think the photographer has more to say about his/her image than anyone else, I want to say to you: argue with those who you admire and follow. Completely, utterly disagree with your leaders. If you respect them, opposition is the least you owe them. Work on reading images, work on backing up your readings, don’t shut down the image, don’t shut yourself off to the world that the image creates. Don’t let the image be that solid, impenetrable box. Get inside there, shuffle things around a bit, chuck some furniture out of the window, redecorate etc. etc.
Overworked house related metaphors aside, there’s so much to be done by questioning an image and none of it ‘ruins’ the image – all of it adds to the life of the image. Don’t believe in idols, don’t make photographs or photographers sacred. I see photographs more like bodies – shifting, corruptible, seductive, emotional and volatile. Photographs are not pieces of lifeless stone to worship; they are dancing partners.
(1) See this article in The Moderate Voice for some of what Phuc said at the memorial and a good demonstration about how she was ‘read’ by American commentators.
(2) For this argument I owe a great debt to Nancy K.Miller and if you want an interesting read about the figure of Kim Phuc and these portraits of her you should read her essay ‘The Girl in the Photograph: The Vietnam War and the Making of National Memory‘.