Monday, 28 November 2011

The thought that counts? Not when you're dead

A PICTURE, so it’s said, is worth 1,000 words – though it rather depends, surely, on what picture and what words.
Personally, I’d take any single line of Shakespeare over the entire photographic output to date of every “celebrity” magazine you could think of.
On the other hand, if this column is really worth four-fifths of the picture I have in mind, then I’ll surely have produced my masterpiece. And it’s not an old master, a Da Vinci, a Picasso or even a Tracey Emin, but a black-and-white news photo taken in 1968.
Of course, this piece would be a lot easier to write (as well as being “worth” a lot more) if I was able to show you the particular photo I mean. Unfortunately, for copyright reasons, I can’t. But it’s a good bet that if we were to print it, you’d recognise it instantly as something you’d seen before.
It really is one of those once-seen-never-forgotten images.
It shows one man casually shooting another in the head at point-blank range.
The victim, who has his hands behind his back and his face to the camera, has his eyes shut and appears to be wincing while his head is jerked sideways by the impact of a bullet that has just hit him from a distance of at most six inches.
The man pulling the trigger is Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan, then the police chief of South Vietnam. The man he is seen summarily “executing” was later identified as Nguyen Van Lam, a low-ranked officer of the National Liberation Front, or Vietcong, the Americans’ Communist enemies.
And the picture fulfilled photographer Eddie Adams’s ambition to take “the perfect photograph” summing up the bravery, frustration and suffering of war.
As he brought his film into the news office in Saigon to be processed, he is said to have remarked: “I got what I came to Vietnam for.”
Which obviously could not be said for the unfortunate Van Lam.
It seems to be stretching a point rather too far to say – though it often has been said – that Adams’s photo helped hasten the end of the war. But it is certainly a remarkable photo, one that rapidly and lastingly entered the national and international consciousness.
It surfaced once again this week, alongside another, up-to-date, news photo showing another police officer shooting unarmed victims at close range.
The juxtaposition of the two pictures was certainly interesting. It said a lot – not least about the person who chose to put them together, and all those moved to “Like” it on Facebook.
The new pic showed a cop in riot gear firing rather nonchalantly at a row of seated anti-capitalist demonstrators at a Californian university.
His weapon, however, was not a pistol but a can of pepper spray. His notably well-dressed victims mostly had hoods with which to protect their faces. And another picture of the same incident tellingly shows not one lone, brave photographer but a mass gathering of camera-wielding onlookers being carefully organised by more police.
It was, in other words – like last year’s shots of “rioters” attacking banks in London – a staged media event. About as much like Eddie Adams’s “Vietcong execution” as reality TV is to reality.
Nevertheless, the two pictures appeared side-by-side with the single caption: “The ammo may be different but it’s the thought that counts.”
Try telling that to Van Lam’s still-grieving widow.
My sympathies in the recent event are, of course, mostly with the protesting students.
The casual use of violence by the forces of order against unresisting opponents of an unfair status quo is, as a senior officer involved remarked equally casually, “fairly standard police procedure”. Which is shocking enough in itself.
To suggest an equivalence, however, between two such different events does justice to neither and serves only to muddy the water.
It is, sadly, typical of the woolly thinking by too many American “liberals” – in this case Californian poet and blogger Ron Silliman – that lets that country’s powerful and authoritarian right wing off the hook.

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