The Power of the Iconic
There has always been a mystery about the iconic image, about its power and its popularity. And now that mystery is deepened by layers of questions. One is that there are billions of images in the world. Has the iconic image lost its power by losing its rarity? Another is the idea that an iconic image has a job to do. Must it effect change? Candide McDonald examines all the questions. (Yes, there are more.)
Can you name an iconic image that was created this year? The chances are that you will create a list. You will edit it when it gets too large and then you will begin to wonder exactly what an image must do or be in order to be truly iconic. The term implies rarity. A couple of decades ago, rarity was possible. The world could agree on its iconic images. The set was small. Now, depending on your source, anywhere from 500 million to over 2 billion images are uploaded to the Internet. Every single day. Real rarity, even in the elite classification, iconic, is unlikely.
Icons by nature
What makes an image with the power to provoke change? It’s a question that has shaped American photojournalist Ami Vitale’s portfolio. Creating change is why she takes photographs. Vitale shoots not to decorate the world, but to change it, to create understanding where there is none and, through this, turn wrongs into rights. “Images,” she says, “should provoke thoughts and questions. They should have a story, meaning, and reveal truths. You have to go deep and show something original and unexpected, something that teaches and surprises, but also reveals those universal truths that everyone can understand and feel.”
Does an iconic image have to create change? This is another complex question. Lunch atop a Skyscraper did nothing more than document a section of life in 1932. It is iconic because it is something that had never been seen before and it elicits the emotions of awe and fear. Nick Ut’s photo of nine-year-old Kim Phuc (Napalm Girl) is iconic because it exposed the horror of war, the collateral damage of war, in a way that hadn’t been shown before. It did create change. It was instrumental in turning the mass of sentiment against the continuation of the Vietnam War.
There are several schools of thought about the nature of iconic images today. The first is outlined by William Snyder, chair of the photojournalism program at Rochester Institute of Technology, New York. “When I was a kid, iconic images popped off the page because there weren’t many,” Snyder explains. “There wasn’t a lot of photography. It was the purview of an elite few because of what it took a.) to make an image and b.) to disseminate that image. Now we are inundated with all kinds of photography and the quality that young and middle-aged photographers are practising is just amazing.” Now that the publishing of content is accessible to anyone, the single iconic image, Snyder adds, is being rivalled by its siblings. “What I see happening more and more is there are great stories and great groups of pictures that tell a more complete picture than a single image does. You don’t see singular images winning Pulitzers so much and the reason for that, I think, is that people have become so good at telling stories. How do you compete in the realm with one image as opposed to anything from eight to twenty or more?”
The second idea of an iconic image is expressed by Simon Lister, who was chosen to be brand photographer and filmmaker for UNICEF in 2016 and has documented the causes, with his work being featured globally across 190 countries throughout the world. “Photographic storytelling captures a moment that challenges us to respond. It can make us cry, love, and feel incredible. It can make us feel heartbroken; it can give us butterflies. There are more and more iconic photos now as we have the opportunity to share photos more easily. Photography is becoming more accessible to everyone and the opportunity to capture an iconic moment is becoming more easily achievable.
“Currently we are faced with challenges we’ve never encountered. Our world is changing fast; we are faced with many global issues, problems and adverse realities, and many photos are captured documenting these times. We see them in our feeds and we are constantly reminded of issues around us. But there is always that one photo which stands out as the hero iconic photo; the image that becomes the hero voice and snapshot of the moment which is then shared by many; the iconic shot that says it all in one frozen moment.”
National Geographic photojournalist Steve Winter notes that for an image to be iconic it needs to have something people haven’t seen before just to get people to look at it. To have power beyond that, he adds, to create change, it needs more. “To create change it has to make you go ‘wow’, make you sad, make you happy, make you horrified, or make you angry that this is going on.” Snyder adds an observation both from studying iconic images for decades and having his own images win four Pulitzer prizes. “The images that resonate most with the world have a single subject. We are social beings,” he explains. The most powerful images make a personal connection, and people do that one-on-one. “It’s like Joseph Stalin’s famous quote: ‘The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic’.”
Where can an image exert its power best today? Superficially, it would seem as though social media must, by its nature, dilute the power of photography. It’s a place where important images stand side-by-side with pictures of what people ate for breakfast and Kim Kardashian wore today. It’s also a place where images are misappropriated and misused.
For Brent Stirton, senior staff photographer for Reportage by Getty Images in New York, though, social media’s mix of important and trivial doesn’t undermine its value. While he feels that “there is a tremendous amount of hyperbole thrown around for what is essentially a sea of mediocrity, iconic images rise above that and they do so because they have both things that we see as commonly valuable across all cultures and are instantly recognisable as having a higher value system behind them. They alert us to the fact that there’s something we should care about and, truthfully, if you don’t you might just be a bit of a sociopath.”
Winter also sees a genuine asset in social media. “I’ve always said that the rise in images on social media is directly related to people being more visually literate.” The more diversity of images that people are exposed to, he explains, the more they appreciate great photography. Stirton, Winter, and Vitale all point to the popularity of National Geographic in social media to validate this idea. “Nat Geo is the number one brand on social media in the world because people appreciate good photography now, appreciate the best,” Stirton notes. “I would like to see those images appear first in places like National Geographic, Geo, The New York Times, The Guardian, and The UK Sunday Times because the bottom line is that I want things to be seen first in the publications that make those images possible.” But then he’d like them to gain a life from there. His reasoning is pragmatic, not ideological. “It takes a lot to make truly iconic images in terms of logistics, expense, etc., so I want those images to be linked to the publications that made them possible. That, for me, is important. After that, if they go viral, great, because it just furthers the communication which is the whole point of shooting them in the first place.”
John Moore, senior staff photographer and special correspondent for Getty Images, adds another insight. “It would be hard to deny that social media is now the most efficient way for any image to be seen by the widest audience. Yes, it also helps when pictures are highlighted by major media, but sometimes they first become iconic because they have ‘gone viral’ on social, and then traditional media pick them up. It can go either way.”
What can iconic photographs do really? In 1991, William Snyder won the Feature Photography Pulitzer Prize for his story about children living in subhuman conditions in Romanian orphanages. The ‘iconic’ image in the story, was a photograph of carer, Mimi Rizescu attempting to console a child, while feeding another one, in the Home for Irrecoverables in Vulturesti, Romania. While the conditions in these orphanages had been deteriorating since 1982, the situation was largely invisible to the rest of the world. Snyder’s images showed the world a very uncomfortable truth and became a catalyst for fundraising and support. Eventually, Romania’s child protection system was completely reformed and evolved from one of the worst systems in Europe to one of the best.
In 2018, Ami Vitale shot an image of the last living male northern white rhino being comforted by Joseph Wachira, a keeper at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, moments before he passed away. “The image went around the world and resonated with people in profound ways,” Vitale notes. “In addition to inspiring people to donate to protect our planet and the species we share it with, it was also ranked by readers of Nat Geo as the best image of the decade, and just recently by Nat Geo as one of the defining images of the 21st century.” It has also been nominated for the Natural History Museum People’s Choice Award. Hundreds of thousands of people were made aware of the plight of the world’s endangered species because this image, The Last Goodbye, was noticed and shared during its awards journey.
John Moore’s Crying Girl on the Border was used to fundraise in 2018 and raised millions of dollars for the non-profit, Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAISCES), to help undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers to get legal assistance. The image was widely published worldwide and on social media. It had
a great impact on how people felt about the Trump Administration’s new Zero Tolerance immigration policy and went on to be honoured by World Press Photo in Amsterdam as the Photo of the Year.
Simon Lister’s photo of an Ethiopian girl, became the hero shot for UNICEF’s global re-branding. It appeared on Times Square billboards, posters, and social media, and was UNICEF’s desktop wallpaper in offices representing 190 countries globally, drawing attention to its work to support the needs of children throughout the world.
Steve Winter’s mountain lion of Hollywood, a picture of a cougar in Griffith Park in Los Angeles captured with the Hollywood sign behind it, moved the issue of needing to protect endangered wild cats into America’s ‘backyard’. It began a huge movement in LA that resulted in the construction of the largest wildlife overpass in the world and the first in California, and a school’s program to educate the next generation about local wildlife.
Not all of these photographers, and not all photographers of iconic images that created change, put that goal first and foremost. The reason why ‘activist’ images are created varies.
Simon Lister: “As a photographer, this is one of the greatest gifts for me, that I can share, and to be part of making a change for good and helping make awareness with my photos. If just one of my photos can help save a life, then it is every bit worth it.”
John Moore: “Photojournalism educates the public on the main issues affecting our society. Sometimes photos can affect policy, although that isn’t as common as we would, perhaps, like. More often though, photojournalism can change the way people think and feel about important topics. It can also confirm stereotypes, so it’s incumbent on photographers to be responsible.”
Ami Vitale: “I was always drawn to photography, not just to make beautiful images but to have profound impact. My hope is that the work can inspire people and remind us that this is the only home we have. We have poked some big holes in our shared little life raft. There is a good chance that like the northern white rhinos, a whole host of species will eclipse into myth, like unicorns. What happens next is in all of our hands.
“Everyone has the capacity to make an impact by making our voices heard. The truth of the matter is very, very few people are actually engaged in the fate of our planet. Photography can be so powerful. It has the capacity to shine a light on those who are caring for the environment. Our future depends on all of them.
If more people are involved, then we will come up with solutions. There is a role for each and every one of us.”
Steve Winter: “When I first started at National Geographic, I had done work for the United Nations for UNICEF. The whole goal of these images was to help document what UNICEF was doing with children and help those who were sick and in need to get better.
Then when I saw something that didn’t make sense about the killing of jaguars in Brazil, (they were being killed because farmers blamed them for killing their cows), I was driven to find a way to help. I began working with a scientist who was a friend, and he started a project that was able to show that only one per cent of killed cows was due to jaguars. That made me understand that what I was doing was the right thing. I began photographing wild cats, not out of a desire to be an activist in any way but, to me, there truly had to be an answer.”
Perhaps the power of an image to effect change, or be truly iconic, is only seen from the distance of time that has passed. While there may be hundreds more iconic image candidates being produced every year – or month – some will rise to the top, eventually. It’s not that the power of any image is reduced by overcrowding, it’s that change and renown take time.
Simon Lister: www.simonlisterphotography.com
John Moore: bit.ly/JohnMoore_GettyImages
William Snyder: www.williamsnyderphotography.com
Brent Stirton: www.brentstirton.com
Ami Vitale: www.amivitale.com
Steve Winter: www.stevewinterphoto.com
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