Picture imperfect: Iconic photos obscure the truth

by Beacon Staff • March 19, 2008

Many Emersonians plan to make a career out of capturing images; whether through filmmaking or photography, it's a popular pursuit around campus. So it's important for students entering that vocation to recognize that captured images often fail to tell the whole tale.

One of the greatest examples of this is the famous Eddie Adams photograph that shows Nguyen Ngoc Loan, a South Vietnamese general, executing Nguyen Van Lem, a Viet Cong prisoner, on a Saigon street in the opening days of the Tet Offensive.

The iconic shot, which has its fortieth anniversary this year, is one of the most notorious and lasting images in the history of American journalism.

Its background remains relatively unknown to the general public, but it's a story that can impart wisdom to anyone planning on capturing images for a living.

Adams has always expressed disgust for his most well-known work, which won him the Pulitzer Prize as well as a slew of other major journalism awards.

He said in a 2001 Time article that "still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world," but that they can "lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths."

Adams' feelings about the photo stem from what happened to General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the gun-wielding man immortalized in the photograph.

After the picture hit the presses in 1968, there was an outcry from many Americans who believed the action depicted Loan as a war criminal. It was argued that the act of shooting a captive, non-uniformed Viet Cong operative was in direct violation of the Geneva Convention. Loan was even denounced by name in Congress.

But little is known about Loan himself. Born in Vietnam, he fought against the communist North during the war. On Feb. 1, 1968, in the early moments of the Tet Offensive, Loan executed VC prisoner Nguyen Van Lem with a gunshot to the head as NBC photographers and Adams looked on.

However, there is dispute over what actually happened that day, mainly if Lem was of "POW status," and if his execution was in fact a war crime. Controversy remains to this day.

Loan was discharged from military service after losing a leg. He emigrated to America, settling in Burke, Va., where he opened a pizza shop.

The establishment was soon covered with hostile graffiti, including a disturbing declaration scrawled across the front door: "We Know Who You Are." Learning of Loan's tough situation, Adams traveled to Virginia in an attempt to help deal with the hostility.

It was of no use: Loan was eventually forced to close his business in 1991. He died of cancer seven years later. Many of his obituaries were scathing, which led Adams to send the Loan family a card that read, simply: "I'm sorry. There are tears in my eyes."

To this day, Adams' believes people miss the real question the image is meant to ask.

In the aformentioned Time interview, he said the question is: "What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American people?"

In a 2000 PBS interview, Adams wished his most famous work was not the Loan snapshot, but rather a 1976 photo series depicting Vietnamese refugees refused sanctuary in Thailand. That collection prompted Congress to grant asylum to hundreds of thousands of exiled Vietnamese.

Adams, who passed away in 2005, claimed those photos were "the only thing I ever done that I cared about," and unlike his most famous work, "nobody got hurt" as a result.

The Loan case is a perfect example of a photographs' failure to relay the whole story. It also shows how easily an idea can be misconstrued.

And that's hardly the only such incident.

A widely circulated photo of Hazel Massery, a white teenager, screaming at black student Elizabeth Eckford during the 1957 integration of Little Rock Central High School remains a potent symbol of the struggle for civil rights. What goes untold is how Massery and Eckford later became friends and appeared together to promote racial equality.

More recently, there's the example of Satar Jabar, the bound and hooded man from the notorious photo that exposed the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal. Yet Jabar wasn't doing time for terrorism, as many suspected, but for carjacking.

There's also the shot of presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama-whose middle name is Hussein-dressed in a turban and robe during a 2006 diplomatic trip to Kenya.

It's speculated that Clinton campaign staffers circulated the still in hopes that Americans would equate Obama with the Muslim faith.

Many at our school dream of seeing their work make an impact on the world, but Adams' photograph is a striking reminder that our creations can betray us, and sometimes our intended message will be mangled by misinterpretation, leaving us with nothing to do but shake our heads.