Jin Chang “Prisoner Execution”

Although my primary task on this project is to gauge and analyze the immediate reception of this photo, that can’t be properly done in isolation of other components that provide a holistic context to analyze the photo, its history, reception, and ensuing legacy. So to start off I’m really feeling out the photographer, the events surrounding the photo, and how he sees it in retrospect.

Obviously, when Eddie Adams adjusts the zoom for the camera and snaps just the right angle (unless in the midst of the intense action you take many shots to have many opportunities at every moment, I wouldn’t know the process of war photography), there is a larger context and a larger story right below the surface. Sure, we are all entitled to our own interpretation of it, but in this case, “Prisoner Execution”, leaves a lot less interpreting space for the viewer. The scenario appears clear and indisputable.

Eddie Adams received a Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography for capturing a rare moment in war. Not the huddled Vietcong in trenches being mercilessly showered with gunfire and bombs or a war-torn landscape or village in the aftermath of a battle, but the rare moment right before Nguyen Van Lem, a Vietcong prisoner was executed on the spot right in the streets. His photo captures the knee-jerk fear of this prisoner in civilian clothing. It does a lot to paint a picture of cruelty and helplessness juxtaposed before a city street.

Interestingly, Adams is quoted as saying this particular shot was just a reflex and that he wasn’t sure what he had snapped until it was developed. In his own reflection of all the hype his photo caused, Adams asks himself why this photo received so much more attention and acclaim than his other photo of 48  Vietnamese refugees who had managed to sail to Thailand, but were cast out until President Carter (on account of the photo taken) granted them asylum in the U.S. In the same stroke he states that, “…photos are powerful.” However, the question remains of what propelled this image of one moment in the war to the iconic status it rests at today. What about it resonated just right with the American consciousness for it to be a catalyst that spoke that which words can’t do alone?

Eddie Adams already asks us to delve deeper into the picture to discover a fuller truth as he gives much benefit of the doubt to the general going on to call him, “a goddamned hero!” As my job is to assess the immediate reception, I’m sure there is more than just one layer to the public reception and in other departments. I also feel that this investigation into the photo, Mr. Adams, and the public response will tell more about ourselves (during the war) than the photo itself. Much more to come.


One thought on “Jin Chang “Prisoner Execution”

  1. Jin,

    This is a nice post with a lot of thoughtful insights into the photo. I’m puzzled about why you decided to blog about his Wikipedia entry as your main source. We sat in my office and found a number of newspaper sources that showed the original photograph in its 1968 newspaper context. I’m sure the photo was published in magazines like Time, Life and Newsweek too. Have you blogged about those sources yet?

    If not, you need to focus on them and not on a Wikipedia entry.

    Still, your writing here is solid. I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts.

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