“How dare Facebook’s twentysomething techies, with a hinterland that barely stretches back to the first “Star Wars” movie, erase moments of history?” Robert Shrimsley, of the Financial Times, vented his anger at the social network’s decision to excise a famous photo of a girl, crying desperately, fleeing a napalm attack in Vietnam.
A number of elements make the picture one of the most poignant images of wartime. The girl is naked. Other children are running alongside her. Soldiers are walking at leisure behind. It is a contrast of cruelty and tragedy, abandon and indifference.
Shrimsley then concedes that Facebook’s decision – later revoked – responds to current mores. Notwithstanding his outrage, he acknowledges that he would hesitate to place Nick Ut’s photo on the cover of a newspaper. Forty years ago, no editor in his right mind would have doubted to slap it across the front page.
FT’s writer goes on to compare it to the famous shot of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on V-Day. The woman in the picture recently passed away at the age of 95. It does look like a passionate embrace but she has made clear the sailor’s attention, and the ensuing smacker, were unwanted. Perhaps it would be a stretch to call it an assault, but surely these days the sailor would be named and shamed by the nurse, who would unleash her magnified fury through social networks.
Yet it is also true that there are double standards when it comes to photojournalism. The Bush administration actively spread the gruesome pictures of Saddam Hussein’s sons after they were shot down in a confrontation in the onset of the U.S. war against Iraq. At the same time, however, it placed restrictions on the photos of body bags and the flag-draped coffins of U.S. soldiers killed in the war. The Bush White House, which included several old hands like then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney – two men involved in the decision-making that led up to the war in Southeast Asia – had learned the Vietnam lesson when it came to the power of images. Perhaps that’s the only thing they learned from that brutal war. And the press, at least in the States, duly complied.
Chance has it that this writer worked for a major news network more than a decade ago when the news came that the Vietnamese girl was now a happy mother in Canada. And this writer remembers the anchor who read the news barely holding back the tears until a commercial break. Photos convey the tragedy of war in a way that a million words cannot.