March 1st. 10 a.m. C.Walsh Theatre, Suffolk University.
Two men, 60+ students, professors. Photographs. Furthermore, memories stored in grainy film, portraits captured in vivid light, full moons casting a shadow on passing airplanes.
Two men, hundreds of pictures, hundreds of thousands of words.
Two men, millions of memories.
Mark Harris and Nick Ut, both professionally equipped and wonderfully talented photographers, made guest appearances at Suffolk University on Tuesday morning. As an amateur photographer myself, this immediately caught my eye. However, attending this lecture and listening to the stories beyond these photographs set a fire within me… I was touched.
Photography is a world of its own, and is often overlooked. Photography is a culture and an occupation that is beginning to hold less credibility because everyone and their brother has an iPhone. The social media world and the accessibility of the common phone camera creates a falsehood about photography that is, quite honestly, insulting and disappointing. One can capture various foods, various outfits, various moments in time with the click of a button. Yet, I ask you, is the quality the same? Is the work put into it the same as one of Harris or Ut?
My honest answer is absolutely freaking not. It’s easy and enjoyable to take pictures, and some iPhone pictures are beautiful– I will give credit where it is due. It does, however, take a special eye and a certain dedication to capture the moments and photographs that Harris and Ut do. Their photographs are raw, they’re honest, they tell a million stories in one, they are beautiful and disturbing and nightmarish and daydreamy and wonderful but horrible ALL AT ONCE. Their photography matters, it means something to people. They take risks and often prove that those risks were worth taking.
The lecture was for anyone that was remotely interested in photography or either Harris’ or Ut’s work. Harris asked, of the room’s occupancy, how many people were photography majors– and only one or two people raised their hands. The crowd was diverse in majors, interests, and perspectives. Yet we all came together with a common goal: to take a piece of these men’s seemingly never-ending wisdom.
The lecture began with a quick introduction of Mark Harris. Harris mainly shoots in North Korea, a country often burdened with a negative connotation. He shoots daily life in North Korea to show that regardless of its reputation, it also has its beauty and normalcy. Harris has been to eight of the nine provinces in North Korea and has experienced many things the average tourist has not. Harris, a middle aged man dressed in a navy blue scoop-necked sweater with an engaging tone of voice and a pleasant disposition addressed the crowd.
He showed the ins and the outs of tourist attractions and even pictured a photograph of the border of South Korea and North Korea: it was black and white with beautiful contrast in the photo itself; but the true contrast was the back-to-back soldiers from each of the countries. Both looked tense and on-edge. One could literally read their faces just by looking at the picture. He then showed a series of pictures of the border again, but this time from a wider angle. In front of crowds, there was a South Korean soldier, tense and poised to combat at any moment. Next, he showed the bare grounds without any tourists or crowds: the South Korean soldier was gone. The soldier did this strictly for show. In Harris’ powerpoint slide he showed various places and photographs of people that looked like they were consciously enjoying themselves. By this I mean that the people pictured are conscious of the fact that every day, at any moment, something could go wrong. They’re aware of the potential danger around them… Harris described this as “bunker mentality.”
The lesson I learned from Harris’ portion of the lecture was that media is wrong, dramatic, and ridiculous. America paints an awful picture of North Korea and gives them a bad reputation… And although their government is aggressively controlling, to say the least, and although there is conflict among the nation, it is also quite normal. “There are real issues with North Korea just like there are real issues all around the world,” Harris exclaimed, trying to help the audience understand North Korea’s situation. There are families and children and beautiful landscapes and the city of Seoul is amazing. It is a functioning nation and it is not all bad. Anywhere you go in this world truly has its good and bad. Take a look around– we live in a city. There are good people and good objectives, and there are bad people with bad interests. Anywhere you go, you are at risk– but that does not make life worse or give life itself inadequate credibility. It was interesting because Harris took a picture of an Anti-America propaganda postcard and it truly opened my eyes to the prospect that, wow, America isn’t perfect! That sounds silly, but seriously– America is not always 100% right in its actions. People tend to forget about that. Harris’ wonderful pictures capture truth and I admire them deeply.
Many people know of Nick Ut specifically because of his photo “The Napalm Girl” which he captured approximately 43 years ago.
Ut captured this photo as bombs were going off in Vietnam. This girl was naked, running through the streets, severely burned. The terror in all of these children’s faces says enough; they were terrified, they were in pain, they were innocent and unsure how to cope with the incident that had just occurred. However, the public reacted to this like an electric current and this photo alone helped to jumpstart the end of the Vietnam War. Ut was awarded the Pulitzer prize because of the Napalm Girl photograph’s impact on society.
His portion of the lecture began with a short video showing actual footage of the events leading up to his famous photograph. The audience gaped as the recording camera was running behind the children, running close to them and seeing firsthand the massive burns on their sides. The girl in the photograph’s arm was mangled and the terror in all of their faces was enough to give me chills. The children went up to Nick Ut and his photographer companion screaming. Apparently they were saying “too hot, too hot, I’m going to die.” Nick’s companion poured water into Kim Phuc (the girl pictured)’s mouth and then onto her burns. This soothed her for a certain amount of time. They tried to help as much as they could. I can’t imagine being in this position or place in time… Mere seconds before Kim had run up to Nick Ut, he had snapped the photograph that would change people’s lives. He was simply doing his job and suddenly, with the literal click of a button, created an attachment to a girl and a photograph that no other human would ever have– or understand, for that matter. Ut and Phuc’s relationship has remained throughout the years, especially directly following the photo’s incessant publicity. Kim needed support and the way I interpreted it was that Ut was one of the only people who could understand what she had been through. He captured what she had been through, and though it was scary and disheartening to look at, it was an honest moment in time that Kim had experienced. It was real.
Ut’s history as a renowned photographer does not end there– he has been working for the Associated Press (known as AP) for 50+ years. He has worked in Hanoi, Los Angeles, Tokyo. He became famous because of the Napalm Girl, but in the discussion, he showed a 21 minute&50 second video showcasing other work of his. The video went through hundreds of his photographs, some from that awful day captured in Napalm, some from LA, some from random excursions in random places. His work is so incredible. I tried to capture it above, but I was one slide off– however, previous to the slide of the girl tanning in her bikini was another picture of a girl tanning in a bikini– right in the middle of a graveyard. The perspective was amazing because there were dozens of crosses and gravestones around her and there she was, soaking up the sun in her plum-colored bikini looking pleasant as ever. It was slightly disturbing to see and made me respect Ut so much for being able to capture so many feelings in a single photograph.
Something I noticed in Ut’s work is that a lot of it, though Hollywood-y and starstruck in his later years working in LA, is still eerie. I don’t know if I feel this way because my brain had the bombing photos engrained in it, or if they truly were slighty disturbing. There were photographs of stars like Paris Hilton and Michael Jackson and others of whom I do not remember their names. These people looked sad and lost and confused. There was one grainy photograph of a man crying and simultaneously smoking a cigarette, though he was well-dressed and looked very kept up in his wealth. Ut captures such deep and imminent emotion in his photography and I was thoroughly impressed with his ability to capture the deep sadness and irony of Hollywood– money and fame does not always bring happiness. I think that Ut can capture this because of his past experiences with photography and life– he has photographed children that died in their mother’s arms seconds after the photo was taken. He’s witnessed pain and grieved for people he did not know. He empathizes with all and captures raw emotions because he feels them, too, as his photographs are being taken. To be able to feel something so strongly and at the same time capture those emotions in a single photograph is something that I strive to do one day.
Ut ended his presentation with six or seven beautiful photographs of a full moon with airplanes flying overhead. I was wracking my brains, trying to figure out “why” he had put these in at such a specific time, what the significance of the airplanes are, what his intentions were. After reflecting for a long time, I believe that he implemented those photographs as a way of closing up his slideshow with hope and grace: full moons are in cycles. The moon waxes, it wanes, its phases change and yet it’s always there. The full moon is at its brightest and most evident, yet when it’s a sliver of a crescent moon it is still present. Memories captured in Ut’s photographs are forever present– the photograph of Kim Phuc will be a memory in everyone’s lives forever. The moments captured in Ut’s photos are memories that are permanent.
People change and times change and life keeps going, life keeps waxing and waning and sometimes we’re at our brightest and other times we feel as if we’re barely a sliver. Photographers like Mark Harris and Nick Ut prove to us, and remind us, that memories matter. That moments in time should be captured, that we are all in existence for something. The world of photography needs to be maintained; rising photographers need to implement emotion into their work, they need to take risks and follow in Harris and Ut’s footsteps.
I hope to make a difference one day in my own creative pathway, much like the differences that these two men with hundreds of pictures, thousands of words,and millions of memories.