This year’s recently announced World Press Photo prize winner, a photograph by Anthony Suau that was done on assignment for Time magazine and published last March online, is entitled “US Economy in Crisis: Following eviction, Detective Robert Kole must ensure residents have moved out of their home, Cleveland, Ohio, 26 March.” Forty years ago, the image selected for the same prize was of another man holding a gun. Photographed by Eddie Adams, working for the Associated Press, that caption read “Saigon, South Vietnam, 1 February 1968. South Vietnam national police chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes a suspected Viet Cong member.”
The 1968 image sparked demonstrations and was an important reason the war ended seven years later. The 2008 image has had much less impact on the national or international psyche even though it also reeks, if more subtly, of violence, and touched on an impending crisis that a few months later engulfed the world.
Ensuring that people are chased from their home as if on a military mission, whether it happens in the United States or Iraq or anywhere else, is enormously sad. Considering the much more benign fate of those who made the reckless loans leading to foreclosure the heavy-handed treatment of former home owners is outrageous. But Suau’s image did not call for the same sense of outrage, of protest, of wanting to stop the craziness. If we lived in a smarter country we might have wanted to know why all these homes were being foreclosed and whether one day soon it might happen to the rest of us.
“The revolution,” as Gil Scott-Heron once put it, “will not be televised.” Now, of course, it is a little late. The early-warning systems did not work.The failed evangelical strategies of the Bush Administration, combined with profound problems in government, banking and media, have paradoxically left us hoping that Obama will be our savior. We have been able to do far too little to defend ourselves against apocalypse.
In America we still seem more entranced by the iconic imagery from overseas than from here. We have trouble seeing ourselves as poster boys and girls for tragedy. That role, as in Hollywood, we prefer to assign to others. Suau’s photo, while far less dramatic than that of Adams, is no less an opening into the craziness to which we have descended. It is up to us to follow his lead.