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Image of the Year.
December 30, 2007 10:47 AM   Subscribe

Image of the Year. From the article: "If you want to go shallow for an Image of the Year, you can't do better than Paris Hilton, seen through the window of a Los Angeles sheriff's car, weeping as she's being hauled back to prison to complete a probation-violation sentence. But when you first notice the credit on that now infamous picture, there's a double take. The image came from the camera of Nick Ut, whose picture of a little girl burned by napalm, naked and running directly toward the camera and into the conscience of the American people, became perhaps the most powerful and influential vision of the Vietnam War. Not only was the Paris Hilton image taken by one of this country's most celebrated war photographers, it was taken June 8, 35 years to the day after the devastating image of 9-year-old Kim Phuc fleeing her bombed-out village. Let's put these two pictures up on the wall together for one last, end-of-the-year look, and see if something emerges."
posted by kittens for breakfast (52 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

silly goose

As good a term for Paris Hilton as I've heard. Thanks for the essay; I enjoyed that the author admittted somewhat grasping for straws to connect the pictures.
posted by Bookhouse at 10:54 AM on December 30, 2007

meh. straws is putting it mildly.
posted by honest knave at 11:02 AM on December 30, 2007

Yes, it's tenuous, but also sort-of symbolic (if in a slightly maudlin way). At the very least, it's a fun fact. I like it.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 11:03 AM on December 30, 2007

War photographers today, and newspapers that use war images, are hampered by the dangers of working in Iraq and the politicization of the war at home. The new war photography often steers clear of powerful, bloody and unambiguous imagery, in favor of images that come at the horror of war by side channels, showing generic grief, generic destruction, generic traces of blood or physical agony.

That's not really true. It's just the war photographs that get published in major papers and shown on CNN. There are tons of gruesome images coming out of the Iraq war, and for the most part they are never shown to the American people.
posted by delmoi at 11:03 AM on December 30, 2007 [4 favorites]

From the article, what I thought is a good summation of the two images:

The image of Kim Phuc said to us, "Here is the war, look at it, it's horrible." The image of Paris Hilton, seen in the context of Ut's earlier photograph, says, "Oh, is there a war on? Really? Like, whatever".
posted by marxchivist at 11:06 AM on December 30, 2007

yea, he was definitely reaching there for his Grand Conclusion -- the hollywood ending platitude -- but admittedly he kind of had to; appreciate the exercise and the juxtaposition tho...
posted by kliuless at 11:11 AM on December 30, 2007

But there is this: On both the basic, factual level and in a broader, more metaphysical sense, we made them .... We own them, they are us, and they define the odd limits of our silly, foolish, bloody-minded species.

The article is a great example of why I do not lament the decline of newspapers and magazines: it reminds me how full of crap they were. I can find far better cultural commentary on a handful of blogs run by people who have day jobs outside journalism.

This is a writer grasping for meaning that isn't there, and using nonsense phrases to give the illusion of thought. Paris Hilton defines the limits of our species? We "made" them in a metaphysical sense? Does this writer even know what "metaphysical" means, or did it just sound deep?

Take two disparate moments from a person's life: say, one moment when the person is setting his own fart on fire for a Youtube video, and another moment when he is weeping over the death of a loved one. Is it really remarkable that someone can do something serious, and do something whimsical thirty years later?

And the closing is priceless: "silly, foolish, bloody-minded species." I am amused to no end by journalists who have to end their pieces with profound "zingers."
posted by jayder at 11:13 AM on December 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

You know, I think the reason we don't see pictures like this from Iraq is because most anti-war people have given up on trying to stop it. It has, I believe, became painfully obvious that the powers responsible for the war simply don't care if you try to stop it - you can protest all you like or publish whatever you've got, but it has exactly zero chance of ever changing anything, ever, except maybe the number of times you've been tazed and pepper sprayed.

So, faced with the depressing realization that they can't do anything about it, I think most people just avert their attention.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:21 AM on December 30, 2007 [3 favorites]

I don't think that picture of Paris Hilton is vapid at all. One wonders if he even looked at it. The entire substance of his reading of the picture seems to be that it's a picture of Paris Hilton.

She's obviously in pain. I guess he thinks it's not real pain. It seems to me that the pain is just about the only real thing about her. That's why it's a striking photo. I don't think I've seen a real picture of Paris Hilton besides this one.
posted by koeselitz at 11:28 AM on December 30, 2007 [13 favorites]

That essay is about nothing at all.
posted by LarryC at 11:36 AM on December 30, 2007

All I know is that once again, someone has managed to draw my attention to Paris Hilton.
posted by fleetmouse at 11:39 AM on December 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

She's obviously in pain. I guess he thinks it's not real pain. It seems to me that the pain is just about the only real thing about her. That's why it's a striking photo. I don't think I've seen a real picture of Paris Hilton besides this one.

I agree, koeselitz, and this was the only point that really troubled me in the essay. His larger point about the trivialization of journalism seems pretty incontestable to me, but you know...I wouldn't wanna go to jail, not even for ten minutes, and neither that she brought jail upon herself nor that she would only be there a short time negates the fact that imprisonment is a valid thing to get, y'know, upset about.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 11:42 AM on December 30, 2007

What an interesting, if half-baked essay. It makes me miss Susan Sontag all the more, since she could have made this connection more deeply and more gracefully and without Kennicott's ponderous prose. I flatter myself by supposing that she would also have seen a further connection between these photos that Kennicott misses: the way that moral consciousness is shaped by the medium of photography.

In the case of the Kim Phuc photo, the searing witness of the photojournalist's lens became a catalyst for ethical transformation. Images like this were instrumental in galvanizing anti-war sentiment beyond the protest movement. By capturing and disseminating a difficult truth, Americans in general came to recognize their collective culpability in atrocity. It is indeed difficult to look at the picture and yet, on some level, one is grateful for the truth it conveys since it demands an ethical response. In that time and place, the camera's witness provoked a sort of moral catharsis.

But Sontag saw this ability of photography to shock as dangerously janus-faced. On the one hand, she recognized that the camera can force a new perspective. On the other hand, she maintained that the camera relied always on novel images to retain that force. Assimilation and routinization are the inevitable successors to the transformative force of the photographic image.

What Kennicott is not seeing, from this perspective, is the way in which the photojournalistic mode has become thoroughly debased. It isn't a matter of some imaginary soldier in a far-off war looking at pictures of Paris and despairing. Instead, the synchronicity here brings into focus the way in which we, as a culture, have come to trivialize and resent the photographic image's ability to force a moral awakening. If it is true that we are forced to read the crying of Kim Phuc and Paris Hilton as aesthetic equivalents somehow, then the point is not our culpability as a culture and a species in the creation of two disparate sorts of photographically encoded suffering. It is that we have become incapable of allowing image encoded truth to awaken our empathy and our shame. The equation of Paris Hilton's tears with those of Kim Phuc is nothing more than a manifest sign of the absolute routinization of the photojournalistic medium.

There is in this bizarre connection between two photographs the basis for an extremely powerful indictment of our image-saturated and empathy-poor culture. Sad that it is not in the power of Philip Kennicott or the Washington Post to draw the harsh lesson.
posted by felix betachat at 11:42 AM on December 30, 2007 [6 favorites]

I'm sorry, fleetmouse. I thought it was for a good cause!
posted by kittens for breakfast at 11:43 AM on December 30, 2007

just think - if we were still using the lunar calendar of the druids, this wouldn't be remarked upon at all
posted by pyramid termite at 11:45 AM on December 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 11:48 AM on December 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

I find that the expression on the faces of the two subjects are very similar. Kim Phuc was as upset about her life-as-she-knew-it changing forever as Paris Hilton's. Tho we can argue that Hilton has far less to lose in this attack on her image and lifestyle, from her perspective it was sheer pain. In fact, considering her ego, she perhaps would have preferred the napalm.

Beyond that, I find it more amusing to focus on the contrasts of the photographs than the similarities.

"they seem weirdly uneasy in each other's presence..."

Hilton's image is in color, her image encased in glass. She's looking away from the camera. We see only her face and it's partially covered. Phuc's image is in black and white, but it's stark and severe and there are no obstacles between she and the viewer. Whereas Hilton is hiding and shying away from the camera, Phuc is running right towards it.

Hilton is this big name and some people hang on her every word, going out of their way to learn any tidbit about her life that they can. It seems she is constantly in the spotlight. However, we really know very little about what actually makes her tick, beyond presumptions based on the public evidence. We've seen Hilton naked, but we don't know her at all.

We've seen Phuc naked. We are witness in that timeless photograph to what is hopefully the worst second ever in her life. It's my hope that her life improved greatly after that experience, but I have no idea beyond the public record. There's no papparazzi following Phuc around, but she took that event in her life and has since done a lot of respectable work in the aid of victimized children. she received an honorary doctorate and has been given a fair share of accolades. Phuc deserves more attention than she has gotten, but her name doesn't necessarily sell newspapers or encourage people to tune in.

Hilton is related to wealthy people, and some think she looks pretty. That's about it. She was in a homemade porn film. She was born with a silver spoon in her mouth and makes no apologies for her extravagant lifestyle. Does she deserve this much attention? She's done nothing comparable to Phuc with her life, nor is there any indication that she ever will. However, she's the darling of the celebrity rags you see on newsstands, because for some reason, a lot of people out there want to see what she'll do next.

Nick Ut took both pictures for the same reason: he knew people would want to see them - and he'd be able to pay a bill or two. It's a question of public interest. The existence of these two photographs tells more about We The People who crave this kind of thing, than the subjects displayed in the camera's eye. We love our trainwrecks.
posted by ZachsMind at 11:57 AM on December 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

we can tie up the two ends of the cosmic loop now. all that needs to be done is for someone to napalm paris hilton.
posted by bruce at 12:30 PM on December 30, 2007 [3 favorites]

I think the article was interesting, not because of the writing but because I think there should be meaning in the disparity between these two pictures and I can't quite put my finger on it. Maybe it's just that I wanted to believe that Nick Ut was a principled fellow bent on using photography to generate change. Reality is closer to ZachsMind's comment: "he'd be able to pay a bill or two". Boo for reality.
posted by systematic at 12:34 PM on December 30, 2007

ah yes, it's now unprincipled to earn the means to pay your bills, thank you mr. systematic, you lottery winner you.
posted by bruce at 12:40 PM on December 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

ZachsMind - current status of Phuc (wikipedia)
posted by Rumple at 12:56 PM on December 30, 2007

"Bloggers struggled to find some deeper meaning in the two photographs, but struggled in vain" Oh, the irony!
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 1:02 PM on December 30, 2007

Well, the image of the Vietnamese girl fills me with horror. The image of Paris Hilton being hauled of to jail fills me with glee. This guy's got range.
posted by jonmc at 1:09 PM on December 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Thanks Rumple. I ah... wuz uh, scanning the Wiki while I wrote my previous rant. It's the only reason why I knew she had any accolades at all, or an honorary doctorate. I had to look it up. I didn't actually know it off the top of my head. Color me embarrassed. =)

But that kinda helps reinforce my previous points. We know more about Hilton than we do Phuc, but it really should be the other way around.
posted by ZachsMind at 1:29 PM on December 30, 2007

Hmm. Is a post a double when the original, more concise version was deleted?
posted by googly at 1:41 PM on December 30, 2007

John Preston at the Telegraph covered this same comparison today with more of a focus on Nick Ut and the photojournalism industry:
'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.'
posted by ahughey at 1:41 PM on December 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

Flagged felix's comment as fantastic. But I think Zach has a point, that we need to see these both as commodities. The challenge of both photographs is in our reactions as the consumer.

I think the Paris image is interesting by itself. There's something very curious about the way the glass and the reflected overhead wires mediate between us and the subject. Paris is obviously human and capable of pain and humiliation, but we prefer not to notice it. Most of what she does is theatrical at its core. This was at once an adult having a childish tantrum and a child-woman having a formative experience (one she has since insisted changed her). We're used to having unfettered access to her in circumstances that she controls (and I'm not excluding the sex video). Here the authoritay of the LACSD was actually placing a partial visual barrier in the way, which both symbolized how they were controlling her, the person, and how they were now seizing from her control of her own image. Our reaction to that, in many cases, suggests how much we are resentful of consuming her manufactured imagery.
posted by dhartung at 1:48 PM on December 30, 2007

Flagged felix's comment as fantastic.

a comment that complains about 'ponderous prose' then follows it with a lot of ponderous prose?
posted by jonmc at 2:02 PM on December 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

I was just a tot when the original image was taken, but I'm curious: did our society back then really have the equivalent of Paris Hilton, to the same degree (or anything even approaching the same degree)?

We've also become inured to violence as a society, I think. Post that photo online today with an open comments section and you'd get "serves the gook right!" ad naseum from the "youtube/lgf/whatever" crowd.

There was just as horrifying an image circulated a couple of years back of a little Iraqi girl screaming in anguish, covered in the blood of her parents who had just been gunned down by our troops at a roadblock. I don't think I saw it in any "real" media, only on a few blogs. Why is that?
posted by maxwelton at 2:13 PM on December 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

I was just a tot when the original image was taken, but I'm curious: did our society back then really have the equivalent of Paris Hilton, to the same degree (or anything even approaching the same degree)?

No. Spoiled rich girls were invented 20-odd years in the Hilton Labs.
posted by jonmc at 2:20 PM on December 30, 2007

As irrational as it may be, now I permanently have in my mind a correlation between Hilton and Phuc due to Ut. So if nothing more than in the back of my mind, I'll forever compare Hilton to Phuc in terms of humanitarian efforts. I'll be pleasantly surprised if the day ever comes that Hilton outpaces Phan Thi Kim Phuc, but I won't hold my breath.
posted by ZachsMind at 2:29 PM on December 30, 2007



When it comes to scandal, nobody compared to Elizabeth Taylor.
posted by liza at 2:56 PM on December 30, 2007

Re the above, I would add anything between the covers of Hollywood Babylon -- going all the way back to the days of Fatty Arbuckle. The difference now is that scandal is globalized and on a 24/7 cycle that it wasn't back then.
posted by blucevalo at 3:44 PM on December 30, 2007

Just think...somewhere in the future some kid is going to think that Paris Hilton was the model for the painting called "The Scream."
posted by doctorschlock at 3:49 PM on December 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

going all the way back to the days of Fatty Arbuckle. The difference now is that scandal is globalized and on a 24/7 cycle

Arbuckle's Law :P

posted by kliuless at 4:11 PM on December 30, 2007

Paris is all baby smooth down there. Maybe that's what ties the two photos together.

I'm so sorry.
posted by emelenjr at 4:59 PM on December 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

Bruce: I can see how you'd get that, but it's not what I meant. It's not that Ut is unprincipled. I was just noting that he is a real person that has to pay real bills, which sometimes involves not taking world-changing pictures. I would prefer a more fantastic reality. Ahughey's comment leads me to believe that Ut agrees.
posted by systematic at 5:16 PM on December 30, 2007

The contrast is intense. Picture of the year. Meh. What a bad year.
posted by caddis at 5:22 PM on December 30, 2007

I can find far better cultural commentary on a handful of blogs run by people who have day jobs outside journalism.

Oh please.
posted by drinkcoffee at 6:02 PM on December 30, 2007

You are brave, emelenjr, for even daring to post that.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 6:31 PM on December 30, 2007

Aw, cheese and crackers! All this says is that Út is old now, and can't hack war assignments. He's stuck shooting photos someplace comfortable, where the most angst his lens falls on is that of a woman suffering from arrested development undergoing a reality check. All this drawing out and infusion of meaning where there isn't any is an obvious product of a well-rounded liberal education, wherein the student is rewarded for, well, making stuff up.
posted by gregor-e at 8:11 PM on December 30, 2007

What is the ethnic origin of the surname "Ut"? Googling just gets me into a Utah - University of Tennessee endless loop.
posted by Rumple at 8:37 PM on December 30, 2007

Rumple, Nick Ut is Vietnamese. He was just 21 when he photographed Phuc.
posted by dhartung at 9:59 PM on December 30, 2007

thanks, dhartung. 21! I wonder if that had to do with his compassionate response to the events of the day, where a grizzled photog might have just grabbed the shot and left?
posted by Rumple at 11:39 PM on December 30, 2007

It seems an arbitrary comparison and says as much about the agenda of the article writer as it does about anything else: "I wanted to show you how vapid, celebrity obsessed we've become and there's a war going on don't you know?"

Still it does provoke questions such as is war photography a "useful" medium now that we've seen the horrors of war so graphically for so long? Are we desensitized to images of death and mayhem?

I did enjoy the disjointed argument at the end about a collective responsibility for both celebrity culture / behavior and war. I do wonder if we've become voyeurs in a world we can't control and can only marvel at. Or more likely, we always were and the idea of actually changing the world by opening people's eyes to, for example, the horrors of war was just a blip, a bit of post-WWII social optimism that was shown to be as foolish and short lived as any historical reform movement.
posted by monkeyx-uk at 3:04 AM on December 31, 2007

I think 2007 is best defined by the RickRolling phenomenon.
posted by autodidact at 3:30 AM on December 31, 2007

I wish someone would bomb a naked Paris Hilton.
posted by dasheekeejones at 3:40 AM on December 31, 2007

but I'm curious: did our society back then really have the equivalent of Paris Hilton

Jane Fonda?

Paris is all baby smooth down there.

Of course, this wasn't the photo of the year at all. The real photo of the year was the one of Britney's hairless punani on display in her limo.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:15 AM on December 31, 2007

It would have been funnier if Paris Hilton were running from some act of terrorism in Iraq.
posted by DenOfSizer at 6:42 AM on December 31, 2007

I wish someone would bomb a naked Paris Hilton.

Well, she's been known to get bombed and naked.
posted by jonmc at 11:49 AM on December 31, 2007

I would have liked it much better if he had presented the images side by side, mentioned that they were taken by the same guy, 35 years apart, and said : Wow! Whaddyathink? Fact is, he couldn't quite see it, but you know, he kinda liked that he knew it was there, and (woah, one moment, pass the bong, there we go) then someone else took over the conversation and, like, found something really meaningful in there. Coincidence? I don't think so.
posted by fcummins at 1:34 PM on December 31, 2007

No shit, I just saw the deleted post. Now, why was that deleted? That was an exquisite post, and all that differentiates it from this one is the bullshit....
posted by fcummins at 1:41 PM on December 31, 2007

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