Distributed by First Run/Icarus Films, 32 Court St., 21st Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11201; 800-876-1710
Produced by Frank de Jonge
Directed by Hans Pool and Maaik Krijgsman
DVD, color, 55 min.
Sr. High - Adult
Reviewed by K. Johan Oberg, University of Minnesota, Wilson Library, Minneapolis, MN
In Looking for an Icon, Dutch filmmakers Hans Pool and Maaik Krijgsman have created a documentary that lets us reflect on the meaning of photographs. This documentary film was originally made for Dutch television and follows a documentary style common in European countries. The style, with its unhurried pace, does not feature a voice-over narration or any apparent presence of the filmmakers, and it lends itself well to its reflective purpose.
The film centers around four photographs that have won the annual World Press Photo Contest. Included are the 1968 photograph of a South Vietnamese soldier who executes a North Vietnamese man with a handgun and the 1989 photograph that features a lone Chinese man with grocery bags who stopped a caravan of tanks on the Tiananmen Square. The first part of the film is spent introducing the photos and setting up their importance. Through interviews with photojournalists, a New York Times photo-editor, the secretary of the World Press Photo Foundation, and a Vietnamese cameraman, the film looks at the historical background and conditions surrounding the photographs and on the motivations of the photographers. It also touches on elements of successful press photographs, the photographers’ emotions, and technical aspects of the photographs. Step-by-step, with the additional voices of critics and academics, the film delves deeper into the role of a photograph, and, as it discusses societal power structures shaping the content of pictures, or whose reality might be represented, it takes on what seems like a cultural studies approach to a photograph’s effect on a viewer. As it moves to discussing the composition of photographs and how they often draw on the history of art, it also touches on recent photographs from the American-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Much of the film moves between interviews and photographs, but the killing of a North Vietnamese man is also shown on a film clip captured at the time by a Vietnamese cameraman. This is a disturbing scene, as are the photographs shown from the first American Iraq war that show mutilated and burned corpses of Iraqi soldiers. These scenes serve to illustrate how photographs can create misrepresentations and a selective reality in the public mind. The film makes this clear as it points out that the photograph of the killing of the North Vietnamese man has been used in the United States to emphasize the wrongs of the Vietnam War, even though at the time, many people saw the South Vietnamese soldier as a hero for eliminating an alleged Viet Cong soldier.
Many of the interviewees in the film come from Italy, the Netherlands, Argentina, and Vietnam, but most of the interviews are in English. The mixed viewpoints represented by people from different countries create a fascinating portrait. However, looking at it from a gender-perspective, it becomes clear that it is missing voices of women.
Nevertheless, the film is well-researched, easy to follow, and highly recommended as a teaching tool for cultural studies, journalism, or communication-related courses looking for a critical view of how photographs gain importance in society, and shape or misrepresent our memories of eras or events.