Pictures Worth More than 1,000 Words: Why Do Certain Photographs Become Iconic?
The photo of President Trump and G-7 leaders by Jesco Denzel at the G-7 Summit in Quebec this summer was hailed as iconic, going viral and appearing in news outlets around the world. Nick Ut’s “Terror of War” Vietnam photo and Ben Hines’s recent image of a little girl transfixed by a portrait of Michelle Obama are two other examples of images that can be called “iconic.” What gives these photographs so much impact? Associate Professor of Photography Sara Greenberger Rafferty talks about the elements that help make photographs iconic and the power of these images to help drive political and social change.
What makes a photograph iconic? Are there elements that these photographs have in common?
This is a difficult question because it’s neither formal nor social qualities that alone identify an image as iconic. As with many things, a confluence of elements combine to push an image into iconic status. That being said, visually, people respond to what they know coupled with, ironically, novelty. This is why the Mrs. Obama picture is so iconic—and similarly, I would add Pete Souza’s image of a boy touching the president’s hair. We have many images of children looking up to presidents and first ladies, but zero—until recently—that an African American child could see themselves in. And this is why the details—of natural hair, or a painting by Amy Sherald of a First Lady wearing a contemporary Milly dress—bump the image up to icon level. Quotation and call-back are important here. This is why, for example, Gordon Parks’ American Gothic (1942), Gary Winogrand’s Central Park Zoo (1967), or Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #21 (1978) are so iconic. It becomes about image fluency and literacy, which speak to the look of the photograph and the contextual information about the time the work is made. Each of these works is political and of its time, but also timeless.
How has this type of imagery been a catalyst for social or political change? Can you discuss one or two examples?
Many of the best examples of iconic images that have become catalysts for social change come from images that were never intended for public consumption. The two cases I would cite include the photograph of Emmett Till in his casket (David Jackson, 1955), published at Mamie Till-Mobley’s request in Jet magazine, with the quotation, “Let the people see what I’ve seen.” This became a catalyst for advances in the Civil Rights movement.
In my lifetime, I saw a different example play out in real time during the Iraq War, when the photographs of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison came to light and became immediately iconic and heartbreaking.
In both of these cases there is a long history of aggressors, torturers, and murderers utilizing photography to memorialize their acts (see, for example, the book Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America), but the Till example illustrates images being instrumentalized not as a sick currency of terroristic propaganda, but as a catalyst for social or political change. Photography is light writing and light is, as they say, the best disinfectant.
Can you share a few thoughts on the Denzel photograph and any other recent images that have captured wordwide attention?
My assessment about the Denzel picture, from the point of view of the culture from which it comes: the woman looks bossy and the man looks like a boss, and everyone else looks like filler. But the power of the composition is long known from the history of painting: a triangular composition pointing to the subject: the 45th U.S. president. In the weeks since this first came up, there has been a lot published about this picture, including additional viewpoints which apparently show a softer scene. This is a case of the iconic image reflecting the context of the time, if not the totality of the event—and why it’s important to remember the ways in which all images are constructed.
And, of course, we have seen the indispensable act of journalistic and photographic witnessing make change in the case of the Trump administration’s policy of separating children and parents detained for crossing the border. The photograph of the little girl crying, which was published in the New York Times, was adapted later to the cover of Time magazine. The child in the picture, it turns out, is still with her mother. However, this doesn’t diminish the photograph’s ability to represent real and true policies and their consequences.
All images are both truth and construction, the central paradox of photography, and what is outside the frame (both literally and culturally/historically) is just as important as what is in it.