Daily Archives: September 20, 2004

Every Picture Tells a Story

The passing of photographer Eddie Adams has become an occasion less to evaluate a career than to contemplate something seen as central to what the New York Times calls

a 45-year career, much of it spent in the front ranks of news photographers, he worked for The Associated Press, Time and Parade, covering 13 wars and amassing about 500 photojournalism awards. But it was a 1968 photograph from Vietnam, taken for The A.P., that cemented his reputation in the public eye and among his peers. That black-and-white image captured the exact moment that Brig. Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, then serving as the national police chief of South Vietnam, fired a bullet at the head of a Vietcong prisoner standing an arm’s length away on a Saigon street

Although there was little doubt that the captive was indeed a Vietcong infiltrator, his seemingly impromptu execution shocked millions around the world when the photograph was first published and it galvanized a growing antiwar sentiment in the United States.

You can see that photo here along with other Adams photos.

For me the first thing that leaps out about it is its similarity to a photo taken in 1954 by the great phototgrapher and filmmaker William Klein of a group of kids in New York’s “Little Italy” playing with a toy gun thatone holds to the temple of another.

You can find that photo referenced on page 46 of Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes much-praised book about the emotional affectivity of photography springing from seemingly “insignificant” details. Of the Klein picture Barthes notes “What I stubbornly see are one boy’s bad teeth.. .”

The same can’t be said of the Adams photograph, as it’s a picture of death. Yet in a curious way its “reality” seems just arfiticial, pivoting as it does on the “play” killings that preceeded it in our memory, like the one Klein took. Yet while familiar Adams’ photo is not banal.

Banality rules, however, in the other Adams photos on the BBC site, particularly his portrait of Mother Theresa holding a baby — shocking in its blatant “Madonna and Child” cliche-mongering.

But the execution photo genuinely shocks, and after all these years hasn’t lost its ability to shock. That’s whatt Nagisa Oshima sensed when in 1968, the same year of the photo’s appearance the celebrated writer-director made one of greatest — but in the West least well-known — films, Three Resurrected Drunkards

Shot in ravishing color and Cinemascope Three Resurrected Drunkards concerns a trio of Japanese schoolboys who skip classes to go swimming. On returning to shore they discover that their school uniforms have been stolen and replaced with outfits common to Korean imigrants. Trying to find out what happened to their clothes they are mistaken for Koreans and mistreated as such by numerous parties. This places the film in line with several Oshima made (including the celebrated Death By Hanging produced that same year) in which Japanese anti-Koream prejudice (similar in many ways to U.S. racism and anti-semitism) is exposed and criticized. The difference with Three Resurrected Drunkards is its fantastical side. For roughly at the halfway point of the movie, the boys find themselves about to be killed by one of their many adversaries as the train they’re all riding enters a pitch black railway tunnel. The boys scream with fright, only to discover themselves no dead but back at the first shot of the film.

Realizing that hey’re being given the chance to re-live what’s just happened through a motion picture diegesis, the boys proceed through the shots and sequences the’ve been in before– much like the heroines of Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating produced six years later.

As they did at the film’s outset the boys periodically play a game in which one of them places his fingers, like a cocked pistol, to the head of the other while on the soundtrack a pop tune familiar to several generations of Japanese children called “I Died” can be heard. When out heroes reach the new “ending” of the film they find themseleves passing through the railway tunnel without having been killed. And on the other side of the tunnel they see an enormous mural of the Adams photo – which is of course what they’ve been play-acting all along.

Superimposing anti-Koream prejudice over the never-formally acknowledged racism of the Vietnam war is clearly Oshima’s way of asserting solidarity with the then-ongoing anti-war movement — a phenomenon that the current generation of Americans seems to have no way of comprehending.

“History is written by the victors,” goes the cliche. Yet the United States as shown it can also be written by the losers.

The famous Adams photograph, shows that for all that’s been done to elevate photography to a conscious art, its greatest power can still be derived from chance. The less-famous Oshima film shows that afteral these years we’re still trapped in that pitch-dark railway tunnel with his schoolboy heroes — hoping to find a suitable diagesis from which to free ourselves.