1.3 Nick Ut's 1972 Vietnam war photograph
The fact that still images can seem to express or crystallise important ideas about society and history is, in itself, of importance to us as social scientists, for we are concerned with the processes by which such meanings are socially constructed and distributed or circulated.
The huge increase in the scale and quantity of images transmitted or circulated via the mass-media over the last 75 years has made us all aware of iconic images; pictures which seem to possess the ability to sum up or symbolise important events, processes, or feelings. Such images provide important points of reference for us, anchoring our sense of identity in relation to ways of picturing ourselves. If the rather shocking image of Phan Thi Kim Phuc has become – as many would see it – ‘a symbol of the civilian suffering in the Vietnam war’ (Arnett et al., 1998, pp. 96–7), does this mean that a photograph can somehow offer a deeper truth about society and history? And is it a different sort of truth from that disclosed by other social science data?
Now look closely again at Nick Ut's photograph and try to jot down what information you think it provides about the time, place, events, and people it depicts.
How much of this information is to be found in the photograph?
If it is not in the photograph, where does such information come from?
How do we know the date of the photograph?
How do we know the identity of the individuals in the photograph?
As this example will have made clear, the information actually contained within the frame of the picture cannot answer very many of these questions. We need to find out other facts about why, when and how the picture was made in order to ‘know’ what it means as a piece of social evidence. So let us go back to Nick Ut's picture of Phan Thi Kim Phuc and try to think about why it is so memorable. One obvious reason will be immediately apparent, and it does not have to do with anything ‘in’ the picture. It is due to the context of presentation.