From Revolutions Past


Aditya Nair studies images that symbolised wars and revolutions in an attempt to understand what makes them iconic.

The image of Jamyang Yeshi, a Tibetan youth, haunted the Indian news media in March, last year. Yeshi immolated himself during a protest against the India visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao. Have you wondered what makes such kind of photos indelible? Why are they so difficult to forget? How do they acheive their iconic status?

Portraying Defining Moments
On 14 August 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru stood before a free India to give his first speech as the Prime Minister. The photo of Nehru holding the Indian flag became the defining moment of India’s struggle. Giving Us Our Heroes Amongst the most popular images ever made is a portrait of Che Guevara by Alberto Korda. The image, titled Guerrillero Heroico, shows a sombre Che at a memorial service for victims of an explosion. The photo attained iconic status, almost ten years later, when Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick started circulating stylised posters of Korda’s image to protest Guevara’s death.

Recreating History
In 1955, Rosa Parks, who later became the first lady of the American Civil Rights Movement, was ordered to give up her bus seat for white passengers. She was then arrested for refusing. A year later, the US Supreme Court found the segregation of seats on buses in Montgomery to be illegal. The following day, United Press International (UPI) staged a photo of Parks sitting in front of a white man, to capture an image that would dramatise the movement.

Going Viral
Before social media evolved, the fame of an image depended on how widely it was used. Jeff Widener of the Associated Press (AP), Charlie Cole from the Newsweek and Magnum photographer Stuart Franklin, each made nearly identical frames of what is now popularly referred to as Tank Man. The images show a rebel standing in front of a row of tanks in protest, after the Chinese army forcibly removed protestors from Tiananmen Square, Beijing. The most popular version is the one shot by Widener. He managed to get the image to the AP wires, thus making the front page of most European newspapers. Similarly, the 2011 uprising in Egypt saw the image of a rebel, with his protest banner raised, facing a line of armed guards. The act, reminiscent of Tank Man, was uploaded by an amateur photographer to the social news website, Reddit. Overnight, his image became the next day’s headline. It is unfortunate that such images are created as a result of horrific events. Wars and revolutions are the setting for their creation. Years after these events lay forgotten, they are recalled through the images that came to symbolise them.