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The Tale of Two Photos

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Disclaimer: some opinions which follow may be upsetting to some readers. Sections IV to VI are my own personal opinions/rants. 



Trafalgar Square. March 1990.

London erupts in a frenzy of riots, protesting poll taxes — an unpopular tax reform that would mark the beginning of the end for Margaret Thatcher’s eleven-year premiership.

A photo is published, with the caption “A West End shopper argues with a protester”. The contrast is sharp: the well-dress lady, her gold watch glinting is across the barricades from a leather-jacketed punk, his hair tightly shaved, a half lit cigarette in hand. Except that by her own admission, the woman is shouting not at the man, but at the police restraining him. “I look like the typical conservative middle-England Tory voter (which I’m not), objecting to the protest. The truth is, I felt bloody angry that day,” she wrote to the Guardian.



Birmingham, Alabama. May 1963.

Martin Luther King Jnr is in the middle of a series of protests, boycotts, and marches in the southern city, which he has called the most segregated city in America.

A German shepherd lunges at a young Black teen. A white officer behind the dog looms large in his dark sunglasses. A photographer takes the photo. The New York Times publishes it across three columns on the front page, above the fold. The president notes he is appalled, and the Secretary of State Dean Rusk intones that the photo will, “embarrass our friends abroad and make our enemies joyful.”

Except that the photo probably didn’t capture a moment of police brutality nor was it clear that a confrontation between the teen and the officer followed. There are three of them: the police officer Dick Middleton of the city’s K9 Unit; Walter Gadsden, the black teen; and Leo, the German shepherd. I will let Malcolm Gladwell take it from here:

“Gadsden and Middleton just look startled — the way people do if they unexpectedly bump into each other. Gadsden has his knee up as a reflex, and his hand on Middleton as if to steady himself. Middleton has one hand on Gadsden and his other arm is flexed. He’s yanking back on the leash. Leo has freaked out and he’s trying to restrain him….. Middleton’s not letting Leo loose on Gadsden; quite the opposite.” 



I have written about both photos before. The reactions to London photo are muted; the comments under the Alabama photo were virulent. It touched a nerve: some accused me of rewriting a crucial piece of American history. Others demanded ‘citations’ (not something I am often asked on this blog). One commenter accused me of rehashing an unsubstantiated claim from a racist website, mainly because that’s the only other mention of the story online.

I wrote about the Alabama photo in 2010 (most likely using hard-copy library books, I don’t remember). Since then, I was glad to see the story confirmed in Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘David and Goliath’ (2013), and mentioned again in his excellent Revisionist History: this summer. There were a few small pieces of discrepancies between Gladwell’s sources and mine: for instance, Gladwell mentioned Gadsden broke the dog’s jaw.  I wrote down that Gadsden attacked the dog (after being already bitten in his stomach). Did the photo show the moment the dog attacked Gadsden or the moment a few seconds later when Gadsden fought back? His hand clutching Middleton who was most likely separating the two was another mystery.

I remember the only other item in my library’s index cards system on Gadsden was an interview, conducted on May 25, 1996 at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. As Gladwell would note in his podcast, this is a troubling interview, in which Gadsden noted that neither he nor his family benefited from the Civil Rights Movement, that he preferred the term “colored”. You should just go and check out the whole podcast here.


This is a lengthy blog post. This post is as much about the history of the Alabama photo (and photos in general) as about people who use them, and build their narratives on them.

The men in front and behind the lenses are just small bit players in a lengthy process which involved editors, article writers, and publishers. Last month, I had a lunch with a reporter friend. His editor had cut a few paragraphs of an article he wrote, citing lack of column spaces, thus resulting in a piece which was more one-sided than he intended. This sort of things happen all the time — sometimes by accident, sometimes because writers and editors have their own agenda, sometimes because it fits the prevailing attitudes, prejudices, or narratives.

Photography is an exceptionally tricky medium because of this. On one hand, many insists that ‘seeing is believing’. More realistically, it is still manipulated. Photography in its short existence has tread a fine line between information and art.

But art is interpretive. Art has the artists’ views, feelings, and emotions embedded in it. That’s why we debate about its parameters and intent: is an art piece ‘punching up’ or ‘punching down’? Is it currying favor with the elite or defending the downtrodden with its message. That’s why a photoessay like Martin Parr’s The Last Resort (seemingly mocking the vacation habits of British lower classes) was so controversial artistically.


A recent comic gives a powerful discourse on our visceral reactions when our beliefs are challenged: sometimes we accept them easily. Sometimes, we fight back. When I told you the story about London photo, did you accept it easily? When the Alabama photo is discussed, did your mind fight back?

Let’s step back. When you hear phrases like ‘globalization’, ‘single-payer healthcare system’, ‘net neutrality’, ‘gun rights’, ‘late-term abortions’, or ‘#blacklivesmatter’, what do you do? Do you read beyond headlines, beyond captions, and listen to the other side’s concerns and grievances? or do you just stick to your own pre-formed notions?

You might struggle to remain fair or neutral.

Remember that reporters, photographers, and editors are people like you too.


Gladwell and I are not impartial either. We have our own biases and blindspots. Neither of us are Americans; we write about American politics in a detached way. Many a commenter has noted that I am unqualified to write about race or racial politics. Maybe I am.

What we — and all of us — are: sum totals of our upbringings, families, surroundings. We inevitably view the world through these experiences. There is nothing wrong with that. We just need to know everyone is looking through different lenses.

I finished university just a few years before ‘trigger warnings’ became a thing. When a controversial speaker came to the campus, we protested but then we sat down and listened. We didn’t disinvite them. Modern world is a messy clash of ideas, and of narratives. We shouldn’t stifle them. We should debate them, with facts and actions. Even when the ideas are disagreeable and dangerous, we should listen to them, and understand where they come from, and what sort of environments and societies enabled them. Otherwise, we would end up teaching and learning sanitized versions of ideas and information — history with its rough edges sanded off.


I wrote this because of a conversation I had with someone on my Patreon. In their words, “Patreon is an Internet-based platform that allows content creators to build their own subscription content service.”

It has been a few months since I started Patreon, and it has given me a few creative ideas and encouragements. I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be more sustainable and growth-focused. Readers who subscribe on Patreon might have access to a few blog posts early; chance to request this topic or that topic; or to participate in some polls. Here is the link to my Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/iconicphotos.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

September 17, 2017 at 10:43 pm

Posted in Politics

David Douglas Duncan | Korean War

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On the morning of 25 June 1950, when the North Korean tanks rolled across the 38th parallel into South Korea, they found the latter’s troops completely unprepared. There were miscalculations from all sides. America’s supremo in the east, General MacArthur, dismissed CIA warnings that the North Koreans would attack in June. Stalin, emboldened by the American apathy towards the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, insisted to Mao that Americans were too afraid to fight another war. As for President Truman, he had been roundly criticized by the Congress for the Communist takeover of China the previous year. With mid-term elections just a few months away, and he himself still intending to run for a second term, he wasn’t going to appear soft. “By God I’m going to let them have it,” he remarked on the evening of the attack.


Others have won Pulitzers for covering the war, but the greatest collection of pictures about the Korean War was produced by David Douglas Duncan (still alive as of mid-2017 at age of 101!). On September 4th, Duncan joined the men of Baker Company across the Naktong river — one of his images was later chosen for a commemorative stamp. He remembered:

“I cabled LIFE’s editors in August from Tokyo and I told them I was heading back to Korea to try and get what I called ‘a wordless story’ that conveyed the message, simply, ‘This is war.’ Not long after that I was covering the fighting near the Naktong River, and I made the picture of Marines running past a dead enemy soldier, their fatigues absolutely soaked to the chest with mud and muck and god knows what else. And this ended up as the cover image for the book, This Is War!, when it came out a year later.”

His photos which appeared in LIFE on September 18th underlined the struggles of fighting men at front. One of the most memorable was that of corporal machine gunner Leonard Hayworth, was crying at the loss of all but two of his squad (above). Another much-reproduced photo captured Ike Fenton, commanding officer of Baker Company receiving the news that his forces are nearly out of ammos and that he could expect no supplies or troops to secure this ‘no-name’ ridge. (below) If another attack came, they (and Duncan) stood to be wiped out.


Now known as a ‘forgotten war’ — commemorated by a TV series that lasted longer than the war itself — the Korean War cemented the American hegemony in the Pacific. After much dawdling, Truman had now drawn a ‘line-in-the-sand’. Some historians note that not much South Korea, but also Japan and Taiwan were saved by the war.


Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

September 14, 2017 at 10:05 am

Posted in Politics

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The Milkman

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Keep Calm and Carry On, proclaimed the poster which is now overused and overparodied. Ironically, the poster was never used — the campaign was abandoned just as the Second World War began. Instead, various photos taken during the war, of ordinary people ‘carrying on’ conveyed the same message.

Most famous of these photos was Fred Morley’s milkman, who was seen doing his rounds, even as the Blitz reduced the apartments of his erstwhile customers into rubble. The day was October 9th 1940 — the 32nd straight day of bombing raids on Britain. The Nazi invasion plans had been thwarted, as the weather conditions deteriorated into winter conditions, making massive aerial campaigns harder to sustain. The Luftwaffe had just switched its main effort into night-time attacks, which became their official policy just two days prior on 7th October. Although not as serious as in a raid two months later,  St Paul’s Cathedral was hit on the early hours of October 9th, but the bomb failed to detonate.

A sea of destruction awaited Morley the next morning. Working for Fox Photos, he knew that if he took the pictures of the destroyed homes, his photos would not be published. A lot of his earlier work had been censored. In front of a back drop of firefighters struggling to contain a fire, he had an idea. He borrowed the coat and milk carrier from a milkman and asked his assistant to walk across the bombed moonscape. London carries on, the stage photo proclaimed, and the censor waved the picture through.

For the capital, tougher days were still ahead. On 14th and 15th October, the heaviest attack saw hundreds of German bombers dotting the skies above London. In ‘Second Great Fire of London’ on the night of 29th December 1940, nineteen churches, thirty-one guild halls and all of Paternoster Row, including five million books went up in flames. But the capital did carry on remarkably: the approval for the government’s conduct of the war nor the percentage of people believing Britain would win it barely dipped even during those dark days. A survey in December, after three months of air-raids, showed that in that surly British way, weather was a bigger worry for Londoners than the Blitz. In The Blitz: The British Under Attack, Julian Gardiner noted that Londoners seeking shelter in a tube station had a weekly discussion group at which the topics included travel, unemployment and “Should women have equal pay for equal work?” Lord Woolton, the popular Minister for Food, quipped, “egg rationing produced more emotion than the blitz.”



I have started a Patreon. In their words, “Patreon is an Internet-based platform that allows content creators to build their own subscription content service.” I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be more sustainable and growth-focused. Readers who subscribe on Patreon might have access to a few blog posts early; chance to request this topic or that topic; or to participate in some polls. Here is the link to Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/iconicphotos. 



Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

September 4, 2017 at 9:37 am

Posted in Politics, War

Tagged with , ,

Black July| Sri Lanka

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On 22nd July 1983, thirteen soldiers were ambushed and killed in Thirunelveli, near Jaffna. In that part of northern Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers were staging a revolt of their Hindu minority from Sri Lanka’s Buddhist Singhalese majority – an independence movement that was quickly devolving into terrorism. What happened after the ambush would poison the Sri Lankan politics for decades.

In Colombo, a mob of goondas (thugs) assembled at the soldiers’ funeral, and handed out paperwork containing electoral rolls and company registrations – which denoted which businesses and houses belonged to the Hindu Tamils. Soon, the city was ablaze in a pogrom, where Hindu businesses were burnt, and the Tamils being burnt alive in buses. A Kristallnacht, noted John Gimlette in his travelogue, “Elephant Complex”. In the photographs of those days, later to be remembered as Black July, Gimlette saw:

“How gleeful the goondas look as they lay out the Tamils. There’s the happiness of looting neighbors, and the ecstasy of fire. A naked man is battered to death, to the obvious contentment of the crowd. For how many centuries must you detest each other, for that? Then there is the burnt-out minibus. It’s said that the thugs jammed the doors before setting it on fire, and then watched as the passengers screamed themselves to death.”

Photographic record was sparse, but Gimlette no doubt saw the works of Chandragupta Amarasinghe, who was working for the Communist Party newspaper, Äththa, whose offices were close to the center to the pogrom at Borella. He was extremely careful, taking only nine photos that day. At times, he would expose only a single shot on a roll before removing the roll and storing it away for safekeeping to prevent the loss of footage. The government censorship meant he couldn’t publish the photos until July 1997, when Ravaya published them.


The most famous of his photos was that of a naked Tamil surrounded by a small group of laughing, even bored, slightly built youth, one of whom had his leg slightly up, ready to kick the naked man. The government dithered for days, holding emergency meetings even as all Tamil businesses in the Colombo Fort area, right outside their meeting room, burnt down. Shiva Naipaul recalled a young boy hacked to a limbless death, and a girl “so enthusiastically raped …. that in the end, there was nothing left to violate and no more volunteers”. Julius Jayewardene, the old man of Ceylon politics and the president, who lived in Borella, refused to send in the police or the army to intervene; when he finally went on television, there was no denunciation, but just bland words about, “a mass movement of the generality of the Singhalese people”.

Over 3,000 Tamils were killed in over 6 days (some put the figures as high as 10,000; the official government figure was 358). And uneasy coexistence had broken down: many Tamils emigrated and those who remained radicalized and joined the Tigers. Jayewardene expelled the Tamils from the parliament. With the Sri Lankan army’s blockade of Jaffna, there were food shortages. Across southern India, graffiti read Invade Lanka. Send Army Now. By 1987, Sri Lanka was well on course for a full-scale civil war which would last until 2009, and India embroiled in an ill-timed intervention.




I have started a Patreon. In their words, “Patreon is an Internet-based platform that allows content creators to build their own subscription content service.” I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be more sustainable and growth-focused. Readers who subscribe on Patreon might have access to a few blog posts early; chance to request this topic or that topic; or to participate in some polls. Here is the link to Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/iconicphotos 



Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

August 29, 2017 at 4:05 pm

Ricardo Rangel | Mozambique

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His biographers note that Ricardo Rangel (1924–2009) was the first non-white journalist in colonial Mozambique. He was definitely one of four or five photographers working there on its independence in 1975, and he had indeed contributed some of Mozambique’s most iconic images, even though many of his colonial-era photographs were banned or destroyed by Portuguese censors.

2004_Pao_Nosso_012 (1)

His best-known work outside Mozambique was a series of evocative studies of bar-girls he made in the 1960s. Under Portugal, the Mozambican capital Lourenço Marques (named after Vasco da Gama’s navigator, who sailed into its broad bay in 1544) was a thriving port and a pleasant vacation spot — Bob Dylan was to croon about its aqua blue skies soon; its red-light district at the Rua de Araújo attracted South Africans and Rhodesians escaping their puritanical regimes at home. With tongue in cheek, Rangel called his work on the Rua de Araújo, “Pão Nosso de Cada Noite” (Our Nightly Bread), a pun on the Lord’s Prayer.


In 1970, Rengel co-founded Tempo with four friends, who left the daily Noticia, the main mouthpiece of the colonial government. Tempo, although initially subjected to colonial censorship, stopped submitting to censors after the Carnation Revolution in Lisbon. The coup that ended the legacy of the eccentric Portuguese dictator Dr Antonio de Oliveira Salazar was a godsend for Mozambique. After all, the reactionary Salazar was asked in 1968 (seven years into the Angolan revolt) whether he saw independence for Portugal’s African colonies, Angola and Mozambique, in the future; “It is a problem for centuries. Within five hundred years.” In many ways, small and backward Portugal could not afford to lose her colonial subjects: it extracted raw materials at highly extortionate prices from its colonies; Mozambique grew cotton for Portugal rather than food for its people, making a small plantation owner class rich, causing frequent famines, and making Marxist Leninist armed opposition Frelimo popular.

Soon even Portugal grew tired of an attritionary guerrilla war, which saw 60,000 Portuguese soldiers deployed to protect a European settler population that gradually dwindled to just 100,000. Independence was quickly granted, leaving the whole mess to Frelimo. As one observer noted, “No revolutionary movement can have come to power in a more favourable climate of public opinion than Frelimo did”. There was no organized opposition, and the media was compliant, with many leading journalists toeing the Marxist line. In Samora Machel, it had a charismatic leader, although Time magazine, ever acerbic ever cynical, called him “a one-tune medical orderly from Xai-Xai”. Machel arrived in Lourenco Marques (soon to be renamed Maputo) to a crowd of over 100,000 people, a scene vividly photographed by Rangel, who also documented the Portuguese troops and families packing their homes and departing (below).


But appearances were deceiving. The Portuguese retreat was hasty and petty. When the Carnation Revolution weakened the colonial government, many white settlers abandoned their plantations fearing a Frelimo assault. Now upon independence, the remaining settler farmers drove their tractors and farm equipment off the cliffs rather than surrendering to a potential communist takeover. The civil servants burnt schematics, maps, and government papers. Many took all of their possessions back to Lisbon, even lightbulbs. In a country of eight million, where natives were forbidden from most jobs (even from driving buses), there existed only 1,000 administrators (blacks and some whites who stayed on). Frelimo struggled to run a country twice the area of California, where 80% lived in rural areas and 90% were illiterate.

The government also overreached. Machel’s repeated denunciations of “demon alcohol” quickly made him unpopular, as did bans on discos and miniskirts, and confiscations of religious properties. The Frelimo thugs took control of factories and businesses. The country’s neighbours long relied on Mozambique for economic reasons: South Africa for its migrant mine workers and electricity from Mozambique’s Cabora Bassa dam, and landlocked Rhodesia for transit of 80% of its exports through Mozambican rail lines and ports. Now, with a Communist government imposing price controls, these links were threatened. Machel threatened to shut off Rhodesia’s transit trade, and the white settler regimes responded by funding an anti-Communist insurgency, instituting a disgruntled former Frelimo cadre at its head. The ensuing war would drag on until 1992, killing one million people and displacing five million.

For more, Norrie Macqueen’s excellent account The Decolonization of Portuguese Africa: Metropolitan Revolution and Dissolution of Empire.



I have started a Patreon. In their words, “Patreon is an Internet-based platform that allows content creators to build their own subscription content service.” I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be more sustainable and growth-focused. Readers who subscribe on Patreon might have access to a few blog posts early; chance to request this topic or that topic; or to participate in some polls. Here is the link to Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/iconicphotos 



Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

August 18, 2017 at 7:41 am

Posted in Politics

Tagged with ,

A Photo’s Journey

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sit room OBL kill

I have often been asked which photo of last ten years would enter the record books and retrospectives. There were many contenders, but as far as cultural impact, the photo above, taken in 2011 of President Obama’s National Security team during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden was a touchstone.


It is now a default scene against which political dramas and comedies are measured. Political Animals, a melodrama about an ex-president and his secretary of state wife, paid an early tribute in August 2012. In 2013, Veep (above) had a two-episode storyline which parodies Washington politics inherent in any politically charged moment/photo such as this.


In 2016’s House of Cards (above), Clare Underwood occupies President Obama’s position, and another woman replicates Hilary Clinton pose. Not just political dramas are playing the homage; in the corporate world of 2017’s Okja, the photo is restaged, with Tilda Swinton again having hand over the mouth — this is the closest reproduction.


Even the White House photographers might be taking a page out of the Obama photo. For the longest time, the Kennedy-era photo of a president as aloof and cerebral, an isolated man lost in the burdens of presidency,  was the go-to image, with The West Wing recreating it in its opening titles. Perhaps no longer. When President Trump called for a missile strike in Syria, he and his advisers were photographed in a similar angle: the president was no longer a single striver occupying the Loneliest Job in the world, but at the head of a ‘team of rivals’ — as Doris Kearns Goodwin once wrote.





Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

August 15, 2017 at 9:14 am

Posted in Politics


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Almost every story and discussion about the bitter Dutch Hungerwinter of 1944-45 would feature the photo above, Boy with a Pan (“Jongen met het pannetje” in Dutch) — an iconic image of life under Nazi occupation and civilian suffering during the Second World War as well as that of a famine that hit a developed country. It was instantly controversial when it was published — many Allied soldiers and generals had it in their quarters to underline the brutality of a war whose ending could not come early enough. The famed Dutch artist Piet Zwart declared it illustrates “a period of social suffering in a way that was legible for everyone of every era.”

It was brutal few months to cap a brutal war. Parts of the country had already been liberated, but in the chaos and disruption of war, agriculture and food supplies broke down. Gas and electricity supplies also ran out, ushering in a hungry and cold winter. In that sense, the Hungerwinter, the last famine to have occurred in a developed country, was a case study on how fragile our logistics and agriculture supply chains are, and how they could be easily disrupted and destroyed in chaos and hysteria.

Butter disappeared in October 1944, followed by vegetable fats, cheese, and eventually meat. Bread and potato rations were tightened again and again. Even the black market ran out of food, and people resorted to eating leaves and tulip bulbs. In some places, the weekly calorie ration fell below the daily calorie allocation recommended. Over 16,000 Dutch people died, mostly old people and children. Many others who grew up during the famine suffered other diseases such as anemia when they grew up.

The photo above encapsulated those bitter days — widely reprinted perhaps because it looked more allegorical than other more harrowing pictures that came out of this famine (of gaunt emaciated children). It could also be contrasted with how later famines in less developed parts of the world were reported and photographed. The boy in the photo was small, his legs boney, his hands clutching the pan tightly in a clawlike grip. He stood on an empty street and stared into the distance, in an image that brought to light the worst of Dickensian horrors. In May 1960, on the fifteenth anniversary of the liberation, the Dutch magazine Margriet claimed that the boy was Willem (Pim) van Schie, whose family lived in The Jordaan neighbourhood of Amsterdam, but Pim said he could not remember it.

The photographer was Emmy Andriesse, a member of “The Underground Photographers” (De Ondergedoken Camera), a Nazi resistance group unique to the Netherlands which contributed to the war effort by taking photos of the occupation from their cameras hidden in briefcases, clothes, newspapers, and shopping baskets. For Andriesse, a Dutch woman of Jewish origin, this was a doubly dangerous job — and her photos of Hungerwinter, like others taken by De Ondergedoken Camera were smuggled out to be reprinted abroad. Andriesse developed cancer and died young in 1953, leaving behind 14,000 negatives and contact sheets which were never published until the 2000s.



I have started a Patreon. In their words, “Patreon is an Internet-based platform that allows content creators to build their own subscription content service.” I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be more sustainable and growth-focused. Readers who subscribe on Patreon might have access to a few blog posts early; chance to request this topic or that topic; or to participate in some polls.

Here is the link to Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/iconicphotos 

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

August 6, 2017 at 6:56 am

Partition of India

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This month will mark 70th anniversary of the partition of India. Various publications will celebrate this, perhaps by reprinting the photo above — allegedly a photo of how the library books were divided between India and Pakistan.

It was perfect — a photo that encapsulates absurdities of the Partition, led by a commission who head was a British lawyer who had never even been to the subcontinent. Indeed, that was precisely Cyrill Radcliffe’s virtue, because as a complete neophyte, it was deemed he would be totally unbiased. Radcliffe simply drew a line between Hindu India and Moslem Pakistan without realizing that this demarcation might go straight through densely populated areas and sometimes even through a single house with some rooms in one country and others in the other.

Apart from the borders, all the assets — from the currency to foreign debt — were divided up. With Pakistan at a fifth of India’s population at partition,  a simple 4:1 ratio was used (i.e 80% of assets and liabilities for India & 20% for Pakistan) but everything wasn’t this neat. As the British keep most of its Indian army to garrison the restless northern and north western parts of the subcontinent, get 30% of the army, and 40% of the navy. (Military spending was three-quarters of Pakistan’s first budget in 1948, and the country was already on its way to becoming a military-run state). Pakistan also agreed to reuse Indian currencies as the there was only one printing press in the subcontinent, so for a while, money was simply stamped “Government of Pakistan” in ink on Indian rupees.

Meanwhile, inflexibly adhering to ratios for other stuff seemed too absurd. As such, all tables from one country were sent into another, as chairs went the opposite way. India took the drums from the police band, and flutes were to Pakistan. As Moslem Pakistan was against alcohol, India retained all the wine and spirits owned by the government, but had to compensate in cash. Old Persian manuscripts from Calcutta’s Madrasah Library were taken to East Pakistan in ramshackle trucks, during a heavy monsoon, which caused irreparable damage to the manuscripts. The viceregal stagecoach was given to India by the toss of a coin. In such atmosphere, the stories that the libraries were divided up didn’t seem too absurd. There were tales that volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica were divided, with neither country having a complete set, and that dictionaries were ripped apart with 80 percent of pages going to India. (link)

But it is unlikely that ever happened. The photo above by David Douglas Duncan, first published in Life, carried a caption: “In the Imperial Secretariat Library, a curator tries to divide a 150,000-volume collection into equal parts for each new state.” The son of the man in the photo, BS Kesavan (later the first national librarian of newly independent India) noted that it might have been staged. Only libraries that were divided were ones under the control of individual provinces—not those under national control. (A Detailed Investigation here).

Nonetheless, the massive exoduses from both sides (about 14.5 million people in total) occurred in the months following Partition crossing the borders into the state of religious majority. The newly independent states were unable to keep public order in these exoduses. One of the largest population movements in recorded history was therefore subsequently followed by complete breakdown of law and order, riots, starvation and massacres.



I have started a Patreon. In their words, “Patreon is an Internet-based platform that allows content creators to build their own subscription content service.” I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be more sustainable and growth-focused. Readers who subscribe on Patreon might have access to a few blog posts early; chance to request this topic or that topic; or to participate in some polls.

Here is the link to Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/iconicphotos 

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

August 3, 2017 at 4:21 am

Posted in Politics

Nelly | Greece

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How do you memorialize someone like Nelly? On one hand, she was a pioneering woman photographer and her photos of Greek temples and columns set against sea and sky shaped – and it can be argued, still shape – our imagination of Greek culture and its visual image. On the other hand, she was a propagandist and she closely associated with Nazis and fascists.

Born Elli Sougioultzoglou-Seraidari near Smyrna in Asia Minor, she studied photography in Germany. The expulsions of ethnic Greeks of Asia Minor by the Turks following the Greco-Turkish war was to shape her views for decades to come – she would adopt nationalist approach to her work, working for the Greek royal family and the Greek state, which was then trying to reproduce an idealized view of their country for both internal propaganda as well as external tourism.  Her photos of the Parthenon, Athens, and Santorini, as well as the locals in ethnic dresses, are to shape the Western imaginations of Greek culture.


Under the pre-war dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas, she worked for the regime’s youth organization EON, producing photos and photomontages of fascistic grandeur. Through Metaxas’ regime, she became acquainted with the Nazi establishment, photographing Hitcher and Mussolini at close quarters, and becoming close to the Goebbels. She requests that Goebbels recommend her to UFA, the German film academy, to be trained in shooting documentaries – due to her admiration of Leni Riefenstahl, that other female propagandist, with whom she was later compared.

When the war broke out, she was in the United States; with the Italian invasion of Greece looming, her nationalism turned anti-Axis and she spent the war years fundraising for the Allied cause by selling the photos of her idealized Greece. A photo of hers – of a soldier sounding his trumpet to call the Greeks to fight off Italy – was on the cover of Life magazine in December 1940.  After Greece finally returned to democracy in 1974, her associations with the Metaxas regime was downplayed by a new Greek government which recast her as the ‘photographer of the nation’: a cultural ambassador of “the ‘Greece’ we all carry inwardly, the ‘Greece’ to which we all return to, the ‘Greece’ we cannot easily overcome’, as one pundit put it.




I have started a Patreon. In their words, “Patreon is an Internet-based platform that allows content creators to build their own subscription content service.” I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be more sustainable and growth-focused. Readers who subscribe on Patreon might have access to a few blog posts early; chance to request this topic or that topic; or to participate in some polls. Currently there is a public poll running on whether you might want to see non-photo related posts, so go and vote!

Here is the link to Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/iconicphotos 

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

July 11, 2017 at 4:11 am

Posted in Culture, Politics, Society

Tagged with , ,

Ernest Cole

with 3 comments


When it was first published in the United States in 1967 and in Britain a year later, House of Bondage was the most comprehensive document of apartheid. Sure, there had been photojournalists from Life or Magnum who visited South Africa and came back with absurd and hallowing photos of segregation, but here was a book, by a black South Africa who lived through its incipient days.

Born in 1940, Ernest Cole was ten when a series of laws — on population registration, on miscegenation, on mixed race settlements — codified Apartheid. In 1953, when bantu education act racially separated educational facilities from missionary schools to universities, Cole left school — his education forever pigeonholing him as an “unskilled labourer” who could only work as in low-paid jobs.

In a time when a black man holding a camera was viewed with great suspicion, he became a photographer for Drum, documenting the pantomime life in segregated South Africa — poverty, binge drinking, overcrowded and dirty black townships, syncretic religion, and bantustans. This was a time of inhumanities. Benches read “Europeans Only”, and there were no benches for “Blacks” as they were supposed to sit on the ground. Trains and train platforms were divided in two — only a small section for “Non-Europeans”. Black hospitals were understaffed.

Absurdities permeated throughout. At drive-in theaters, wooden walls cut through the middle of the field, separating the blacks from the whites. Since non-whites are not allowed to see some films restricted to whites only, the ushers — who were predominantly black — were asked to avert their eyes and watch the floor while ushering in patrons. Shakespeare’s Othello — subtitled The Moor of Venice — was not allowed to be played by a black actor. Black Beauty, a novel about a horse in Victorian England, which didn’t even include any black people, was banned because the censors read the title and assumed that it was a black rights novel.


But the worst conditions were in the mines — in whose strict patriarchal divide between white overseers and black laborers began the seeds of Apartheid. Cole sneaked his camera into these mines in his lunchbox, and took pictures. In his book, Cole wrote, “twenty-four hours a day, six days a week, half a million Africans are at work in the earth.” The pay was low, and the condition dire (the mines were not unionized until 1982) but the lure of riches was to draw other Africans into the miasma of apartheid. They came from all over South Africa and from Zambia, Mozambique, Angola and several other neighboring states.

Soon his work and connections became too controversial even for trailblazing Drum. After he was asked, and re- fused, to become a police informer, he left for exile in the West. When his book was published, he became an instant persona non grata and his book joined Black Beauty on the banned list (but was secretly circulated). He never returned to South Africa, and died penurious in Manhatten in 1990, even as the Apartheid regime was crumbling.



A word about Patreon. In their words, “Patreon is an Internet-based platform that allows content creators to build their own subscription content service.”  I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos. But that research does come with a price tag — in web hosting, books, library subscriptions, and copious coffee.

Readers who subscribe on Patreon might have access to a few blog posts early; chance to request this topic or that topic; or to participate in some polls. Currently there is a public poll running on whether you might want to see non-photo related posts, so go and vote!

Here is the link: https://www.patreon.com/iconicphotos 



Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

June 26, 2017 at 8:12 am

Posted in Culture, Politics, Society

Tagged with ,

Syria. 2017.

with 4 comments


How do you publish the pictures of a chemical attack? For French left-wing daily, Libération, the choice was clear. It put an image on its front pages.

The photograph, released by the Associated Press, shows the lifeless bodies of at least children minutes after a chemical weapon attack on Khan Sheikhoun, a rebel-held town in Syria. They were stripped half-naked, immediately after the chemical attack, not to leave their skin in contact with contaminated clothing. It was a screenshot from video shot by a group of citizen journalists, Edlib Media Center (EMC). America’s ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley showed a version of the image to the Security Council.

In Time magazine, Lionel Charrier, Libération’s director of photography, defends his controversial decision:

Our job, as photographers, as photo editors, is to see what we don’t want to see. We don’t take pleasure from it. These images are unbearable, but if we do it sparingly, sometimes we have to break the rules.

This is not gratuitous. This is not done to sell copies. It’s a photograph that we found on the Associated Press’ wire. We’ve captured, in the past, screenshots of videos, but the fact that the wires had authenticated the photograph was important for us. We watched as improvised first responders were carrying these children and putting them in trucks and pickups.

This photograph reminds us of James Nachtwey’s images in Zaire. When you do a front page like this one, you want to disturb people. We can’t hide behind it. It’s the image with a capital I; the one we will remember this year.”

Time asked whether he would have published a photograph of French victims of a terror attack. Charrier noted, “In those cases, publishing these images would be playing in the hands of ISIS, which wants to create terror. In this case, the Syrian regime denies these events ever happened. They don’t want people to see. This pushes us to say: ‘See, here it is.’ That’s an important part of our job.”

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

April 19, 2017 at 7:45 pm

Posted in Politics

Klarsfeld slaps Kiesinger

with one comment


It was a dramatic slap.

In November 1968, as the Christian Democrats met at their party congress in West Berlin, 29-year-old Beate Klarsfeld walked up to the podium and slapped Chancellor Kiesinger. As she was dragged out of the room, she shouted, “Kiesinger! Nazi! Abtreten!” (“Kiesinger! Nazi! Resign!”), alluding to his 12-year membership of the Nazi Party, and employment at broadcasting and propaganda ministries during the war.

For the slap, Klarsfeld was vilified in the local news, but for her, it was a symbolic slap to the face for the West German establishment. Statute of limitations on Nazi crimes were about to expire in little over a year – on December 31st 1969 – but the political class had not make serious effort to persecute former Nazis. Kurt Lischka, the head of Paris Gestapo, was still employing his comfortable retirement in Cologne, though he had been sentenced in absentia by a Paris court. For ten years, Hans Globke, who previously wrote laws restricting rights of German Jews, served as Chief of Staff and close advisor to Konrad Adenauer, the first post-war Chancellor of West Germany. Kiesinger himself was advised by another prominent jurist of the Third Reich, Carl Schmitt and was succeeded as the minister president of Baden-Württemberg by Hans Filbinger, another Nazi era judge.

But the most egregious of all, at least for appearances’ sake, was Heinrich Lubke, the seventy-three-year-old president of West Germany, who was accused of helping to build concentration camps. The East Germans made the accusations in 1966, but these claims were largely ignored as false, until Stern, a West German magazine, hired a handwriting expert to verify that it had been Lubke’s signatures on concentration camp plans. By February 1968, things were getting out of hand: two students were expelled from University of Bonn for breaking into the rector’s office and writing “Concentration Camp Builder” next to Lubke’s name on the university honor roll. Lubke meekly responded, “Naturally, after nearly a quarter of a century has gone by, I cannot remember every paper I signed. It was not part of my duties to sign blueprints for wooden barracks. Nor do I recall ever having given such signatures.” He clanged onto power for ten more months before forced to resign.

Kiesinger too was on his way out. He was called as a witness to the war crimes trial of Fritz Gebhard von Hahn, accused of murdering thirty thousand Greek and Bulgarian Jews in 1942-43, and the media was keen on putting him on trial instead; he failed to get re-elected the following year.

As for wider West Germany, the reckoning was still a few years away. A slow but dramatic revelations of Filbinger’s Nazi crimes was to occupy German media in the following decade. Kiesinger’s successor as chancellor, Willy Brandt would drop to his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto memorial. This, combined with the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and the German telecast of the ‘Holocaust’ mini-series in January 1979, finally placed the Jewish suffering firmly at the heart of the German consciousness. Even then, some myths endured.


Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

April 11, 2017 at 2:47 am

Posted in Politics, Society

Tagged with , ,

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