Thursday, April 29, 2010

About the Power of a Photograph

This photograph was taken April 29, 1975 - 35 years ago today - by Hubert Van Es, a Dutch photojournalist working for UPI in Saigon, Vietnam. It shows a CIA helicopter evacuating desperate Vietnamese employees of the agency and their families from the roof of an apartment building, often misidentified as the US Embassy, the day before the fall of Saigon.

The image is grainy and cropped, the composition more straightforward than artistic. Surely it was experienced meaningfully by millions, in millions of ways - to paraphrase Walt Whitman, it is large; it contains multitudes.

What I wonder is whether it has resonating power only for those of a certain age, say, over 50 - those who were in some way "there," who supported or opposed, fought, feared, suffered or suffer still from that war, and who knew what that moment captured on film meant. Or whether, like some scene from the Crimean War, its power will fade into wondering what that was all about.


  1. I fear the latter. I don't really think someone wrapped up in Facebook/Twitter even has a vague thought of history. It's all in the moment. Two Twitters ago was history.

  2. hmmm ... well, i'm 45, and a confirmed addict of facebook and this photo has been in my mind's eye for years and years and years. So being under fifty (by a smidgeon of course, but still i consider miles, cause who wants to be 50 yet? right!) ANYway, being under fifty doesn't exclude me from being deeply effected by this photograph. Vietnam was a reality for me as a child -- on the evening news, in our town's Memorial Day parade in the form of tributes to the wounded and dead military and also in the form of protesters who came to the parade, and then there was my kindergarten bus driver who taught us kids how to draw the Peace Sign and had us open the windows and stick our tiny pale arms out the windows to flash the two fingered Peace/Victory sign while we chanted "PEACE! PEACE! PEACE!" while he drove us around town and dropped us off one by one. We were the talk of town, our Peace Bus. Did we know what we were fighting for? Yeah, in a way we did, I think. Okay, this youngin' is shuttin up now, except to say that I don't trust anyone under 30 these days.

  3. For me, being 60, the more powerful images has been the ones of them pushing helicopters into the sea.

  4. Yeah, I don't want to be the old guy waving his cane and griping about how nobody remembers their history, but I fear you're right, L.

    And Wolfy, the Exceptionally Bright Child like yourself has always given me hope, not to mention the Subversive Bus Driver and Tiny Pale Arms for Peace.

  5. And yes, Maureen, that image has always stuck with me, too.