Szarkowski argues that a photo cannot tell a story but should instead be interpreted as symbols. I agree that the moment a photographer selects cannot tell a narrative without seeming overly contrived or posed on their own. Instead, I think the viewer brings the story to the image with their life experiences and knowledge. I’ve included Nick Ut’s photograph image from the Vietnam War. This is an image I have seen many times but never read background information about. That being said, it still tells a story to me. I have been told that it’s from the Vietnam War (so I admit to slight cheating) but without further knowledge I can assume these people are Vietnamese and the soldiers are American troops. The children look like they’re very scared and in pain, and there is a cloud of smoke obscuring the skyline behind them. This makes me think that they’ve been with some kind of chemical agent which is causing the pain.
The composition of the photo highlights a sense of helplessness and lack of agency on behalf of the Vietnamese. Everyone is fully contained within the edges of the frame. The Vietnamese, mostly children, are in front of the soldiers, walking towards the viewer. The soldiers in the background look like they’re herding them forwards. The smoke in the background hides whatever is in the horizon, limiting the depth of the photo and keeping the viewer sharply focused on the people. It also prevents the viewer from knowing what time of day it is. Further emphasis is given to the Vietnamese because the soldiers are wearing darker colors that almost match the smoke. When I view Ut’s image, I immediately focus on the look of horror and pain on the face of the naked little girl. She is almost in the center of the frame, slightly left.
I believe Ut used the horror and anguish of the children to represent the pain of the Vietnam people during the Vietnam War. U.S. soldiers are not the heroes in the photo. Instead, they are responsible for the suffering of children. This dismantles the mythic idea of the U.S. defending people across from the evils of Communism. American viewers might see this image and question their role in this imperialistic venture.
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “Children Playing in the Ruins, Seville, Spain, 1933” does indeed highlight Szarkowski’s tenet of time. This photo was taking during the Spanish Civil War. The opportunity to take a photo like this only happens after the ruin of a battle or a bombing. The composition of the image is fantastic. The hole in the wall meets the edges of the frame. Children are both in front and behind the hole. There’s a group of six children in the foreground. One child is physically stepping out the hole, joining the viewer at their vantage point. Like Ut’s photo above, the children are coming towards the viewer. There are also children playing in the background and middle ground. Their faces are obscured by distance but it’s clear that they are playing—one child has his hand raised like he’s about to throw something.
I’m unsure what tone or message Cartier-Bresson was trying to convey. On one hand, it’s devastating to see young children in such a violent setting. It means that these boys do not live in a safe place and their lives are endangered. Some of them likely faced loss recently, whether of material or familial value. On the other hand, the image does speak to the endurance and vitality of youth. These kids are stuck in a terrible place, yet they continue to play. They adapt.