Icons of war photography : how war photographs are reinforced in collective memory : a study of three historical reference images of war and conflict

Gassner, Patricia (2009-03)

Thesis (MPhil (Journalism))--University of Stellenbosch, 2009.

Thesis

There are certain images of war that are horrific, frightening and at the same time, due to an outstanding compositional structure, they are fascinating and do not allow its observers to keep their distance. This thesis examines three images of war that have often been described as icons of war photography. The images “children fleeing a napalm strike” by Nick Ut, “the falling soldier” by Robert Capa and Sam Nzima’s photograph of Hector Pieterson are historical reference images that came to represent the wars and conflicts in which they were taken. It has been examined that a number of different factors have an impact on a war photograph’s awareness level and its potential to commit itself to what is referred to as collective consciousness. Such factors are the aesthetical composition and outstanding formal elements in connection with the exact moment the photograph was taken, ethical implications or the forcefulness of the event itself. As it has been examined in this thesis, the three photographs have achieved iconic status due to different circumstances and criteria and they can be described as historical reference images representing the specific wars or conflicts. In this thesis an empirical study was conducted, questioning 660 students from Spain, South Africa and Vietnam about their awareness level regarding the three selected photographs. While the awareness level of the Spanish and the South African image was rather high in the countries of origin, they did not achieve such a high international awareness level as the Vietnamese photograph by Nick Ut, which turned out to be exceptionally well-known by all students questioned. Overall, findings suggest that the three selected icons of war photography have been anchored in collective memory. Ut, Robert Capa, Sam Nzima, semiotics, Spanish Civil War, the falling soldier, Vietnam War

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