Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Review Articles

Book Reviews Archive

Looking for an Icon

by Hans Pool & Maaik Krijgsman, Directors
First Run / Icarus Films, Brooklyn, NY, 2005/2007
DVD/VHS, 55 mins., b/w, color
Sales, $390; rental/VHS: $125
Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com.

Reviewed by Amy Ione
The Diatrope Institute
Berkeley, CA 94704-1517 USA


At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the word icon is as apt to bring to mind a graphic symbol on a computer screen as an unusually symbolic pictorial representation. Historically, by contrast, icons were often associated with religious themes and generally defined as pictorial representations whose form pointed to something beyond the image per se. Since 1955, the World Press Foundation has selected one photograph annually as the winner of its World Press Photo competition, many of which have become icons in the traditional sense. Looking for an Icon, a video by Hans Pool and Maaik Krijgsman, was produced to commemorate the contest’s fiftieth anniversary. It pays tribute to the competition through examining four of the award-winning photographs that are now considered icons: Eddie Adams's 1968 photo of the public execution of a Viet Cong prisoner, an anonymous photographer's last image of Salvador Allende taken during the 1973 coup, Charlie Cole's 1989 photograph of a lone student confronting tanks in Tiananmen Square, and David Turnley's 1991 photo of a grieving soldier during the first Gulf War.

Interviews with a selection of critics, editors, and characters involved with the narratives educate us about each photograph’s history, the process through which it was chosen for publication, and how the image eventually became a social force outside of the artists’ control. During the Allende sequence, for example, a comparison of the award winning shot with one that does not show Allende’s face distinguishes how a throw away shot fails to stay in our mind like one that becomes iconic. Charles Cole’s commentary on the Tiananmen encounter between a single student and a line of tanks is illuminating in terms of how a photojournalist combines intuition and skill while in working in the field. Cole reports that he really wanted to give this student’s action meaning. He felt if this kid was prepared to sacrifice his life, he owed it to him to tell his story, to make his life mean something. He also explains that he was quite fortunate to get the shot that day. As Cole recalls, he was low on film, and needed to shoot sparingly. [As it turned out this symbolic image was at the end of the roll.] He was also lucky to have good light, a clear day, and a student who was wearing a white shirt. Had the student defying the tanks worn green or brown instead, his body would likely have blended into the tanks, offering no contrast between the youth and the machines. It is amazing to think that the color of a figure’s clothing could have stripped the power and poignancy from this award-winning image!

While I found sections of Looking for an Icon compelling, it never quite congealed for me in a larger sense. On the one hand, the interview technique seemed to neutralize historical references that, I believe, were intended (and necessary) to broaden the film’s scope. On the other hand, the script seemed to circle around questions about photography that it never explicitly stated or addressed. Susan Sontag’s studies of photography help frame some of them.

In her award winning book, On Photography, Sontag argued that our capacity to respond to images of war and atrocity in our rapaciously media-driven culture was being dulled by the relentless diffusion of vulgar and appalling images. Twenty-five years later, in her book, Regarding the Pain of Others, she reversed her position. With maturity, Sontag concluded that images turned us from spectators of events into witnesses. When we are empathetic viewers, according to Sontag, the images open our minds and deepen our comprehension of events within our world. Looking for an Icon suggests that what photographs are is not an "either/or" proposition, nor is the activity that produces these documents. Both the gut-wrenching impact and the dulled mind were on display in this production, and the script does not suggest they are "competing."

For example, when David Turnley speaks of being in a zone when shooting his image from the 1991 Gulf War, he conveys how much emotion goes into a shot as well as the emotional impact a photograph can have on the audience. It seems Turnley knew immediately that this shot was a comprehensive statement about the war. He sensed that it would fully capture the tragedy of the conflict, and go beyond the filtered news stories of the time. As Turnley explains, during the first Gulf War, there were few deaths. He wanted a shot that would educate the public to a reality that the media had largely overlooked. The poignant image that allowed this presents the moment of a crying soldier’s realization that a body bag loaded onto the plane with him is that of his best friend who had been killed. By contrast, a sequence showing a Vietnamese tour guide pointing out the spot of the Viet Cong prisoner’s execution brings another side of photography to mind. After the young man who is escorting the group of vacationers points out that they are at the spot where the execution took place, the American tourists begin to photograph it, almost mindlessly.

Sontag’s essay on the photographs of the torture at Abu Ghraib, "What Have We Done?" also comes to mind repeatedly when watching Looking for an Icon. In this essay, she points out that these scenes of torture will no doubt become the iconic images of the Iraq War. [Ironically, these images would not be eligible for the World Press Photo award because soldiers, not professional photographers, took them.] Perhaps the best known of the Abu Ghraib photographs shows a hooded Iraqi prisoner standing on a box, his arms outstretched with fake electrical wires attached to his fingers. In the film, this hooded figure was mentioned by a number of speakers in passing. What was more noticeable was its repeated display in the Geoffrey Batchen segments. Batchen, who teaches the history of photography in New York, provided commentary on photographic history and iconic imagery in general throughout the film. He was seated before the hooded image, which appeared to be on his computer screen, each time he spoke. Its unreferenced presence seemed odd, as he only mentioned it briefly (and not directly) in one of his later sequence. Admittedly, I found the tortured man’s silent presence disturbing, and wondered what the intention was in including it.

Finally, I wish the film had used the commentary of Batchen, the Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani, the critic David Levi Strauss and others more effectively. It was clear they understood that iconic images cover a range of emotions. Yet, their contributions could have more effectively conveyed an iconic range that the four award-winning photographs did not include. Detailing the impact of other symbolic photographs might have given the movie a broader vantage point on this important subject. As it stands, the final produce is more a commemorative of the World Press Photo Award than a study of icons.

Many specific images came to mind in thinking about what I felt was missing. Although none of the following images, to my knowledge, won this prestigious award, some commentary on visual statements like these could have expanded the theme immensely. One powerful icon, produced before the contest began, is the wonderful
Life Magazine photograph taken by Alfred Eiseinstadt the day World War II ended, showing nurse Edith Shain being kissed by Carl Muscarello, a sailor in the U.S. Navy, in Times Square, New York City. Recently I heard her speak. She mentioned that they were strangers, but the emotion of the day brought them together. Another pre-contest image is Gordon Parks’ photograph of Ella Watson, who worked as a charwoman in a federal building in Washington, D.C. Now known as "Gordon Parks American Gothic," Watson had posed for Gordon Parks in 1948 with a mop and broom, symbols of her trade. As the years passed, she became his signature image, and the image itself became the symbol of the pre-civil rights era's treatment of minorities. Equally extraordinary, was the August 23, 1966 image of the first view of Earth taken by a spacecraft from the vicinity of the Moon. The photo was transmitted to Earth by the Lunar Orbiter I and received at the NASA tracking station at Robledo De Chavela near Madrid, Spain. Like Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, this view of the Earth marks a point of entry into new perspectives on who we are. It is noteworthy that the space images are as close to science and technology as they are to art.

Understanding iconic imagery is of immeasurable importance in understanding ourselves. Looking for an Icon conveys this to some degree, and successfully shows that iconic images take on a life of their own. Offering some insight into four well-known icons of our time, the film presents a fascinating overview of these photographs, adds critical commentary on their power, and places them historically. The film also communicates that these images are a part of our mythology. As well done as parts of the film are, however, in my view, the directors could have said more.


Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador, 1973.
Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador, 2003.
Sontag, Susan. "What Have We Done?" Guardian/UK 2004.



Updated 1st October 2007

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@sfsu.edu

copyright © 2007 ISAST