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:

Nick Ut: 1972

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:


Anne Bayin: 1995, 'Kim Phuc and Thomas'.

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‘.

  • Excellent. Very thought provoking.

    “Photographs are not pieces of lifeless stone to worship; they are dancing partners.”

    Best description of a photograph’s purpose I’ve seen in a long time.

    Thank you for writing this.

  • Lee

    Madeleine is not ruining the photo, she’s adding her intelligent perspective. But I am curious if maybe her background in religion and nationality gives her these impressions.

    • Hi Lee, Well of course any given person’s cultural position has weight in their analysis but one can also expand and incorporate other perspectives. I wonder what your implication is? And, as you mention it – I wonder what you think my religious and national background is…? 😉

  • Bravo. If I can humbly add a few thought to this wonderful doctrine, photos play a critical cultural and political role and they, in the larger picture, are rarely discussed but rather absorbed. To the extent that many of those photos are loaded with biases and ideological assumptions, typically reinforcing the narrative of powers-that-be, analysis is critical.

    I would also add, photos exist in temporal space. To the extent they invariably reflect on the current moment, an examination one day is going to differ, in a marvelous way, from the next.

  • Photos of course change with time as knowledge of events change along with styles of work. However it should be noted – Nick Ut was a still photographer and the image is a still – not taken from 16mm film – (http://digitaljournalist.org/issue0008/ng2.htm). It was one of perhaps the 3 most important images/use of images of the war. Horst Faas’ execution shot and Life Magazines spread of the week’s dead US soldiers being the other two. The napalm was dropped by the SV air force. That fact didn’t matter at the time the image was made and now has been forgotten. As for styles and changing time: The Life Magazine spread of the US soldiers who had died during the week is not only iconic but has been tried off and on during the post Vietnam American wars with little or not effect. The Life Magazine spread ran close to 350 portraits but I am not sure shear numbers explains the different reactions now to such spreads. As to the second image: I will only saw American public has not healed from that war: It lurks in the background of every Presidential primary and national campaign to this day. I would say Nick Ut’s image was and is iconic, it stood/stands for something beyond just the particular circumstances of the event. Anne Bayin’s image is, I think, about the pretty standard journalist story personal triumph. I don’t think it is iconic because the story was too limited. I do not believe the second image changed the meaning of the first anymore than all the public misgiving of Horst Faas about the circumstances of photo of the Saigon street execution.

    • Hi Robert,

      thanks for your comment.

      You’re right of course the second photo can’t change the first in terms of it being a physical or digital object. But in the minds of viewers surely it would be impossible psychologically to not look at the first image in a different way knowing that the girl survived and led a ‘normal’ life. By stating that it did not you seem to be suggesting that meaning is absolute?

    • Hi Robert,
      Thanks for the correction. As far as I understand it there is some film footage of the whole event as well – that’s how I conflated the two things, so sorry about that. And thanks for your other comments as well – very interesting. Madeleine.

  • Whats interests me more is the fact you reproduced the cropped version of the first image, the other image shows more GI’s to the viewers right, in my view it’s even more distressing and more powerful as even more soldiers are NOT trying to come to the aid of Kin Phuc. It’s cropped to make Kim the central element within the frame which I think is not needed, I don’t think our eyes need diverting, unless they were to divert our attention away from the GI’s.

  • jim

    Robert, I think you mean Eddie Adams, not Faas.

  • Nick’s iconic image is definitely a still – not pulled from film footage.

    Robert, when you’re talking about Horst Fass’ execution shot, are you accidentally referring to Eddie Adams’ image?


  • ariane

    “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 am all for critical thinking and analysis, but if that’s what you read when looking at these two images, it makes one wonder whose moral bias are questionable here. And since when “love, peace and forgiveness” would only be seen as christian, American values. What is exactly “a christian framework within which to understand suffering”? I think you would show this set of images to anyone in the world, whatever their creed or culture and they all probably would understand and sympathize. Should we have hoped for the girl to die or to have had a miserable life so that it would have fit nicely our anti-war, anti-American liberal thinking?
    I am puzzled by such analysis, reducing these shots to symbols rather than seeing the individual’s history behind them, that of a child who was the innocent victim of an adult conflict and who overcame her trauma, can only be made by someone who is really misinformed about such realities.

    • Hi Ariane,
      Well, ‘A Christian frameworks in which to understand suffering’ is meant to refer to the Christian doctrine of redemption achieved through suffering- i.e. within Christian belief, Christ’s suffering on the cross led to the redemption of humanity. Also, I totally agree that ‘love, peace, forgiveness’ are not only Christian or only American values, and that was not my point at all. My point is that they are indeed Christian ideals and therefore have powerful rhetorical position in the discourses that define America which is a nation with a strong Christian element. In no case am I trying to suggest these things are exclusive to America or Christianity, or that America is exclusively Christian. What I’m referring to is the ways in which America was founded in the idea of ‘Manifest Destiny’ (the God given and God driven right to build and claim the nation of America) and the Christian rhetoric which surrounds America’s actions in the World even now. I myself am neither American nor Christian so I hope you can see that I look upon these ideas as a matter of useful information which can give me insight into the behaviour and narratives that America as a nation creates. I do believe that these images have incredible emotional power across many different cultures and my analysis comes in the context of seeking to understand America’s consumption and use of the images in its understanding of itself. Therefore, I hope you can see that my analysis is useful towards understanding America’s national identity after the conflict in Vietnam and not at all a comment on Phuc’s life. Neither is it supposed to be a total answer to what these images mean – it is merely one perspective, relevant to one context. Which is of course exactly what I am getting at in my post! 😉

  • ariane

    Thank you Madeleine for your reply. I have to say that I still don’t really understand. Are you saying that the Americans, as a nation or as a culture(Do you mean as you see conveyed through the media? litterature? political discourses? or do you just mean among vietnam veterans?), perceive the suffering of an innocent child in a warzone seen in picture one as ok/acceptable/excusable/necessary because juxtaposed with picture two it fits into the christian concept of redemption through suffering which itself fits into the concept of America’s Manifest Destiny or in this case America’s “god given right” to take part in a post colonial conflict, or are you saying that Americans can only empathize with the suffering of Phuc in picture one because they see picture two?

  • Madeleine

    You are of course right, it was Eddie Adams and I should have caught that.

    I think the meaning of some photos are absolute. Or at least within their cultures (an idea much discussed in terms of POY awards). Nick Ut’s shot remains iconic over time, it is not just about Vietnam but war and specifically the toll on civilians. Of course it is also “just” a photo of a person at a particular moment in time. Because of the circumstance people become curious about who the girl is, what happened to her. In that sense the photo posed a question, also over time, and generated a story idea. The photo, to some extent, also made Kim Phuc and icon. I think you are correct in what you say about the second photo keeping in mind that America has not finished fighting it’s internal Vietnam War. This does not change the nature of the content of Ut’s iconic image, one way or the other. Neither does it make Anne Bayin’s strong image iconic. The questions I do have are: 1) under what circumstances can an iconic image be made? 2) Do different cultures/politics produce different iconic images? 3) Or are iconic images always about universals such as fellowship, hurt, family, plight and understood that way? I don’t know.

  • 1) With the clarity of hindsight? But then I see ‘The Stolen Scream’ and realise also that an image may not necessarily be created out of the events of the era in which it’s made, but appropriated by that era because it’s an image that ‘fits’ the prevailing mood. I like that idea that imagery can be ‘made’ or ‘elevated’ to it’s iconic status by the needs of masses, rather than imposed on them by the bias of ‘the media’.

    2) I don’t really know, but I found the debate around ‘The Pieta’ interpretation of S. Aranda’s WPP image very interesting. I saw motherly devotion, and more, in that image but not any religious significance, but that probably says more about my ignorance than anything else. But whether that image will attain ‘iconic’ status remains to be seen.

    3) I don’t know either.

    I need to think more about all of this……….

  • What a stuff of un-ambiguity and preserveness of valuable familiarity regarding unexpected emotions.

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