Double Exposure: What happens after the shutter is released?

Photographers are a curious lot when it comes to the things we collect. Every shooter I've ever known has a closet filled with boxes upon boxes of odd mementos, faded press passes sporting more youthful (and thinner) headshots, and favorite photos made by our friends and idols.

I'm no different. Though I have copies of my own photos signed by the likes of Oprah and Jimmy Carter, I'd be more likely to share with you some of my more offbeat collectibles, like the official candy bar of the Million Man March (it always seemed a bit off-message to me), a cigar I picked up near the bombed out Commandancia in Panama that reads "Antonio Noriega" around the band, or the signed copy of Catch-22 I secured when I photographed Joseph Heller at the USA Today building in Arlington. (Oh, wait. I gave that to my childhood friend, David Fischer. You so owe me, David.)

One of my all-time favorites comes courtesy of the international airport in Riyad, Saudi Arabia. It's a bright orange puffy envelope used by the airline for items that can't be brought aboard an aircraft. The items, presumably collected from passengers before a flight, would be given back to said flyers upon landing. A pen knife, you're thinking, or a pair of scissors, right? No. Printed right there on the envelope, in big, bold letters is the following warning: "If item removed from passenger is valuable, like a gold dagger,..."

Like a gold dagger! I'd love to see the folks at TSA deal with that one.

I do have a couple of things that aren't frivolous, of course. One of them is a print of one of the most famous photographs ever taken, signed by the photographer. In fact, it's so famous an image that I really didn't need a photo here. All I really need to say is "girl runs down street screaming after napalm attack" and you'll instantly conjure the image. There aren't too many photographs that have that much visual recognition.

The photograph was taken by Nick Ut, one of the true living legends of photojournalism. I consider myself incredibly luck to have worked next to Nicky for the couple of years I was in Los Angeles during the early nineties. I was shooting for UPI and Nick was with AP, of course, the same outfit he made the napalm photo for. We were competitors, technically speaking, but Nick doesn't see anyone as a competitor once the scrum is over. He is a teddy bear of a guy, someone so polite, so caring, so lovable that you sometimes have to remind yourself that he took one of the most haunting photographs of the twentieth century.

In fact, I simply need to point to the inscription, which I'm somewhat embarrassed to report reads, "To my best friend, Matt...Nick Ut" to illustrate my point. As much as I would love to think otherwise, the truth is I'm not Nick's best friend. Not even close. But that's just it. Nick sees everyone as his best friend and vice versa.

I shared a lot of laughs with Nicky in Los Angeles. He was never one to turn down a free meal, especially the big Rose Bowl media dinner held at an L.A. steakhouse. I think they called the event the Beef Bowl or something. And I'll never forget a press event to introduce a new perfume line from Elvira, the late-night TV vamp. We photographers love our swag and I can still picture Nick stuffing twenty bottles of free Elvira perfume into his Domke bag.

"Nicky, what the hell are you going to do with all of that stuff?" I asked.

"I give to wife!" he said with a huge smile.

I haven't seen Nick in a while (the last time, I think, was chasing Monica Lewinsky around Washington. Nick is such a veteran of the Los Angeles courtroom beat that his editors sent him here to see if he could work some magic on the east coast). But two recent back to back stories about him caught my eye and reminded me what a great human being he is. They also reminded me of the great compassion that photographers often have for their subjects.

The first appeared a couple weeks back in the Washington Post, by Phillip Kennicott, headlined, "Poles and Decades Apart, Two Silent Screams Issue Discomfiting Reverberations." The story analyzes the odd bookends that now seem to define Nick's career: that iconic image of a young Kim Phuc running down that road in Cambodia in 1972, coupled with another great photo taken by Nick Ut thirty-five years to the day later, a teary Paris Hilton being hauled off to L.A. County jail. To the day, ladies and gents. Is there some cosmic irony at work here or are the parallels purely poppycock?

Kennicott writes: "...placed side by side, these two images begin to take on meaning, slowly, in counterpoint, in part because they seem weirdly uneasy in each other's presence. The proximity of something so serious (war) with something so trivial (celebrity sightings) should create sparks of cultural blasphemy. Enumerate everything these two images might possibly have in common, and you quickly find they resist each other almost like the poles of a magnet."

The story is really a fascinating read, one that shrewdly examines the widening chasm between serious journalism and celebrity obsession that has developed in the intervening years. Again, Kennicott's own words:

"But there is this: On both the basic, factual level and in a broader, more metaphysical sense, we made them. Kim Phuc's misery was the collateral damage of a war we made. Paris Hilton's vanity and fame and preposterous sense of entitlement is the collateral damage of a society we made. Before filing these two images into their proper categories -- the tragedy of war, the vacuity of the home front -- we should acknowledge the one thing they have in common at the deepest level. We own them, they are us, and they define the odd limits of our silly, foolish, bloody-minded species."

Another story that same day in the London Telegraph by John Preston, titled "Nick Ut: Double Negative," covers much the same ground, though it somewhat annoyingly fails to make the distinction, as Kennicott's does, that Nick is not a paparazzi but a working news photographer who, quite often, must cover the same celebrity events that the paparazzi are chasing. It is this intersection of serious journalism and frivolous tabloid pursuit that is at the heart of both pieces. (In fact, the beauty of Nick's Paris Hilton picture is that he not only beat the younger, rowdier paparazzi in getting THE picture but that he also made it seem carefully composed and thought out. Tabloid photographers want a picture; a photojournalist wants the picture.)

The Preston story does go a bit more into depth into Nick's lifelong relationship with Kim Phuc, the girl in his famous photo, now 44 and running a charity for children in Toronto. Seconds after making his photograph, which of course won him a Pulitzer, Nick did what any human being would do in a similar situation: he cared for her burns and drove her to a hospital where she would receive care. There's no issue of crossing lines or ethical boundaries here. Being a journalist doesn't mean one gets a Get Out of Jail Free card when it comes to being a compassionate human.

"Uncle Ut definitely saved my life," Kim Phuc tells Preston. "When we arrived at the hospital, the doctors all thought I was going to die. I had third-degree burns over 65 per cent of my body. After everything that had happened to me, he was the one person who restored my faith in human nature."

Only a few months back, the Los Angeles Times published an amazing two-part story by staff photographer Luis Sinco titled "Two Lives Blurred Together by a Photo." It examines the unique bond often shared by photographer and subject, in this case a weary Marine forever immortalized by Sinco as the "Marlboro Marine" of the Iraq war. One seemingly innocuous click of a shutter can change lives, as evidenced in Clint Eastwood's Flags of our Fathers or Frank Johnston's devastating search for the haggard Marine in his famous Peace Church photo from Vietnam, a topic I discussed here a few months back. The road from obscurity to universal symbol is almost always fraught with land mines. In Sinco's case, the ambivalence he feels for "creating" a media icon of Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller, no matter how well intentioned, ultimately leads to a near-intervention in Miller's post-Iraq plunge into PTSD. Like Nick decades earlier, Sinco treads carefully upon the line between journalistic objectivity and basic human compassion. I may have gotten him into this mess, can't I at least help him get out of it? he seems to be asking.

Well, what would a Dark Slide post be without just a bit of serendipity? As I was pondering these stories about Nick Ut and Luis Sinco et al. I received an email from one of my former bosses and mentors at USA Today, Frank Folwell, telling me he was leaving the paper after 21 years. Frank is another legend in photojournalism circles, someone who has led the nation's newspaper through every single technological advance of the last two decades--from an early analog transmitter in a Haliburton case called a Leafax through Sony Mavica still video cameras to today's megapixel-loaded Canons and Nikons. He's scouted every Olympic venue dating back to the ancient Greeks themselves and is as even-keeled as they come. (He came from the Des Moines Register, what do you expect?) All this without ever forgetting that it is always the photograph, not the technology, that is paramount.

So it's no surprise then that one of Frank's photographs, taken on a cold day in Croatia in 1991, is one that had an enormous impact on my development as a photographer. The photograph is of a little boy and a grandfather walking down a road, the old man lugging what has to be the sorriest Christmas tree since Charlie Brown presented his lame specimen to Linus and the gang. Of course the beauty of the image is that the little boy is beaming like he had just chopped down the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. War was ravaging his homeland and he has not a care in the world. Pure joy.

I'll never forget the day I saw that picture run in USA Today. It left such an impression on me--the juxtaposition of sadness and hope--that I knew right then and there that I was on the right path. The picture became a gold standard of mine for years, something I never told Frank all these years until we spoke last week.

Here's what Frank wrote:

I took the picture in December 1991 on the way to covering the massacre of 43 civilians by Serb paramilitaries in the small village of Vocin in Croatia.

It was ironic to encounter young Dario Rahle and his (step) grandfather Juro Botincan walking along with a newly-cut Christmas tree. At least one reason for the big smile might be that Christmas was not officially celebrated in communist Yugoslavia. Croatia had declared itself independent and despite an ongoing war, the citizens began to observe the holiday.

I think most readers were struck by the scraggly tree and Dario's jacket with the broken zipper. Several people sent me new jackets for him.

I got letters and calls for several years asking for copies of the photo and inquiring about how they could help Dario. In February 1992, Sherry and I took several boxes of gifts to the family - all sent by readers. Also, there was a pretty substantial amount of money sent to me that we were able to give the family. On our next visit we found they had bought a freezer, something that makes a big difference because they can preserve their produce and meats. They had chickens, geese, pigs etc.

Over the years we have tried to keep in touch with the family. Grandfather Juro has died. Dario was doing odd jobs since he could not get a job as a baker. We have tried to give him help and support but he is probably still doing day work.

In order to communicate we have to go to his home, which is a 90 minute drive from Zagreb. They don't have a phone and don't respond to mail. We hope to visit him this year.


Once again, a great photographer whose heart is in the right place. Photojournalism will no doubt face more and more pressure from its bastard cousin, the tabloid press. But the paparazzi don't care about their subjects any more than a seal hunter cares about the pup he's about to club. Great photographers like Nick Ut, Luis Sinco, Frank Johnston and Frank Folwell care and that's what will always separate the good guys from the mob. I'll leave it to Nick Ut, whose mastery of the English language has always been a source of good-natured ribbing from his colleagues, to wrap this up with what has to be the quote of the year, a simple yet staggering reflection:

"It's a strange feeling because I know I will never take another photograph that's as good as this - not as long as I live. When I look at my photograph of Kim and my photograph of Paris Hilton, I think they are both good pictures, in their way. I suppose the big difference is that I grew to love Kim, whereas… well, frankly, I don't give a damn about Paris Hilton."

Well said, Nicky.

Matt

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