In “Photographing the Vietnam War” Robert Hairman and John Lucaites illustrate what makes an iconic photograph iconic and why. They specifically write about what makes the photo of a naked girl running through the streets of Vietnam after a bombing an iconic photo. The photograph was taken in 1972 and was published all over the world. Immediately people around the world were outraged; why was the girl naked? Why were the soldiers in the background acting as if this was normal? Why had all the children in the photograph been separated from their families? These were all questions running through the minds of Americans and other people throughout the world (199). The photograph stirred many emotions and made many people who at the time already felt the war was unnecessary, hate the war even more. The faces of terror on the children created a very real picture of what the war was doing to families and other innocent people in the country of Vietnam.

Hairman and Lucaites argue that iconic photographs “reproduce dominant ideologies, they shape understanding of specific events and periods (then and subsequently), they influence political action both topically, and by modeling relationships between civic actors, and they provide figural template for subsequent communicative action” (201). This is true for the photograph of the naked girl running with scars on her back in Vietnam. The photograph made people of the time who already resented the war, resent it even more. People who may had not been exposed to what the war was doing to the children of the country now had a clear view, and now demanded change at an even greater pace than before the picture was taken. The picture lives on making it iconic even to the people who were born after the incident illustrating the horrors of the Vietnam War.

If however that is the definition of an iconic photograph, there is somewhat of a problem. Many photographs pop up before the photo of the girl in Vietnam when the phrase “iconic photograph” is typed into an internet search engine. The photograph of Marilyn Monroe posing over the grate in the street where her dress is flying up and she looks playful, yet sexy is one of them. This photograph does not reproduce dominant ideologies. In the year this picture was taken in 1954 women were not to be seen as sexy and her husband of the time Joe DiMaggio felt that the picture was too sexy and even divorced her shortly afterward (Famous). The photograph did not “model relationships between civic actors” in any way (201). A protest was not started, war was not ended, and not many people besides the people who saw the film this photograph was taken for even cared about it. Action may have been sparked by this photograph, but the action would most likely been on the scale of modern women of the time dressing a little more provocatively. This photograph is considered iconic but does not meet Hairman and Lucaites definition of what an iconic photograph should be.

If Hairman and Lucaites definition were to hold true for the picture of Marilyn would have shown what the modern woman of the time was like and that would have meant that the modern woman of the time; according to the photograph; would need to be sexy, yet playful and able to withstand the heat of a grate on the street blowing up her dress. Women would have begun protest in order to get what they want, immediately after seeing the photograph, and action would take place. Hairman and Lucaites definition for an iconic photograph is quite strict and does not hold true for all others.

  1. What do you consider to be the true definition of an iconic photograph?
  2. Why do you think Hairman and Lucaites chose the definition they did?
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4 Responses to Icon

  1. qfeng2013 says:

    Cekarri talked about iconic photograph in the reading response, in my my, the biggest characteristic of iconic photograph is the representation of the event. The picture in the paper, which was taken by AP photographer Nick Ut, is a good epitome of Vietnam War. The naked girl is running and crying, no one can see her physical and mental pain. Only herself and those who experienced Vietnam War knew what they went through during the war. And I really appreciate the author’s idea that “in America, history only last for one generation.” Just as the naked girl, she moved on her life and had been given a beautiful baby to replace her own damaged childhood.

    The other figures in the picture also embody standard social roles and relationships. An old girl holding the hand of a younger brother, even herself was in panic. I also have a younger brother, thought we often fight with each other, I am willing to do anything for him. I think that is the relationship, and that is also the reason the older sister held her younger brother, not left alone. There is also a small child turning to an adult figure as if to a parent. I felt quite uncomfortable to see the small child, he is innocent, but has to run without parents’ protection. The most sad thing is the soldiers walked coldly as if it was their normal life.

    This picture contains so many messages that it deserves to be the iconic photograph.

  2. hollywen says:

    I think an iconic photograph can be defined as “can universally remind people of a certain historical event, celebrity, ideology or other things”. I think what we called “iconic” should be specific or limited to a certain field or aspect of society. What counts is that the photograph needs to be universally and widely recognized and its dominant meaning will not change as time pass by. So I harbor the view that the definition of iconic photograph by Hairman and Lucaites may be too narrow to use widely. I think they chose this definition in order to describe the photographs related to politics and history, which are the macro level of a society. They excluded icons of other micro aspects of the society. The reason why they chose this definition may be related to the historical background they lived. Since the war brought great pain to Vietnam civilians and the morality seemed fade in people’s mind, they try to use the definition of iconic photograph along with the icons to remind people of conscience and sympathy. They put the point on “political action” and “ideologies”.
    I appreciate your discussion about the photograph of Marilyn Monroe. I think it is a great example to show the characteristic of definition from Hairman and Lucaites.

  3. melbelle15 says:

    I think an iconic photograph can be defined in many different ways. By definition, something that is iconic is “very famous and well known, and believed to represent a particular idea.” I think that this definition goes along with Hairman and Lucaites’ definition of an iconic photograph, in that it represents how a photograph can influence a culture. There are many kinds of iconic photographs that each represent something different and how they effect a culture depends on the events happening in society at that moment. An iconic photograph is a representation of an event. A good, representative iconic photograph is one that will forever be remembered and always be linked to the event it is supposed to represent. Cekarri argues in her reading response, that Hairman and Lucaites’ definition cannot apply to all photographs. Yes, the picture of Marilyn Monroe is an iconic photograph, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it represents what the modern woman was like in the 1950s. Rather than representing the current modern woman of the 1950s, I think this photograph represents the changing modern woman of the 1950s. The 1950s was a time period that broke boundaries and I think that there are multiple photographs that represent this. I don’t think that there is one, single definition for an iconic photograph. Because of how much an iconic photograph represents, I think it needs multiple definitions to fully describe what an iconic photograph is.

  4. kekoh2013 says:

    ‘Accidental Napalm’ was taken on 8 June, 1972 by AP photographer Nick Ut. To describe the photo, the naked little girl is running down a road towards the camera in Vietnam, screaming from the napalm burns on her back and arm. Other Vietnamese children are moving in front of and behind her, and one boy’s face is a mask of terror, but the naked girl is the focal point of the picture. Stripped of her clothes, her arms held out from her sides, she looks almost as if she has been flayed alive. Behind her walk soldiers, somewhat casually. Behind them, the roiling dark smoke from the napalm drop consumes the background of the scene.
    The photo is meaningful because today it is regarded as a defining photographic icon and it remains a symbol of the horror of war and the immorality of America in general. Also, I think that the photograph can function as reproducing dominant ideologies and shape understanding of specific events within collective memory in American public life as Hairman and Lucaites argue. And it was interesting to me that Cekarri gave an example of the photograph of Marilyn Monroe. This photograph is considered iconic but does not meet Hairman and Lucaites definition of what an iconic photograph should be.

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