The making of a memorable image

Pictures: In public perception and the judgment of history, one photograph can be decisive.


April 23, 2000|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

In hours, the photograph was blown up and held aloft by anti-Castro protesters, a ready-made poster for anybody trying to make a point about government excess, even government terror.

Having won a legal fight, the federal government in the click of a camera shutter suddenly faced a battle of images.

Hot stuff, the stuff of propaganda or revealed truth, depending on where you stand. There's the federal agent, straight out of a right-wing militia's recruitment spiel. He's wearing a helmet and goggles and pointing an automatic weapon in the direction of -- whom? Not an armed terrorist or a serial killer, but an unarmed man holding a boy, a 6-year-old boy who looks confused and terrified, as if he's being chased by a monster in a nightmare.

It's very bad or it's very good, depending what you want to make of it. As soon as the Associated Press transmitted the photograph by Alan Diaz, a 43-year-old free-lance photographer for AP, the instantaneous historians of the media had declared its place in the collective national consciousness.

"This is an image that will endure in our memories," said Miles O'Brien of CNN.

Perhaps. In a time when the word "icon" is applied to everything from Post-its to cereal advertisements, this photograph seems to live up to the term. Absent photographs of the standoff at Ruby Ridge, and with images of Waco reduced to a distant fireball, the helmeted man menacing a little boy with an automatic rifle has the makings of an instant anti-government emblem, or at least a snapshot rendering of a months-long ordeal.

Somebody says "Kent State" and chances are you conjure that photograph of a teen-age girl crying over the body of a fallen student. Somebody says "Oswald" or "Jack Ruby" and who doesn't think of the television image from the Dallas police station garage? "Napalm" is that little naked girl, her arms outstretched, running in terror. Until yesterday morning, there really wasn't one image to go with "Elian."

Now there is.

"That picture, seen from a lot of points of view, has disaster written all over it," Dan Rather of CBS News said shortly after he saw the photograph.

He sounded a bit like a public relations consultant. Perhaps he was right. At last word, the polls were continuing to show that most Americans approved of the government's handling of the Elian Gonzalez case, that the boy belonged with his father.

But how many of those surveyed had seen the photograph? How many had seen the photographs taken minutes later as Elian is carried crying from his relatives' house in Miami. These images are softened by the fact that the boy is in the arms of an unarmed, unhelmeted government official who happens to be a woman. Still, Elian's face is a mask of fear.

By the time Elian's plane landed at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington for his reunion with his father, protesters had gathered there and at Reagan National Airport. Some held enlarged copies of the federal raid photograph.

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas joined those citing the photo as evidence of government excess. "How does waving a machine gun at a 6-year-old demonstrate to anyone here or abroad that we respect and will defend the principles of freedom?"

The federal government was going with the Mies van der Rohe school of thought, saying God is in the details. Note, Attorney General Janet Reno said, that the federal agent is not exactly pointing the weapon directly at the man or at the boy. Note that his right trigger finger is not actually on the trigger. Note that intelligence reports suspected there were guns in the house.

By midday the government would get some help in the image battle from Gregory Craig, the lawyer for Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, as father and son conducted a private reunion at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington.

As outrage over the government raid erupted in violent protests in Miami, the Associated Press transmitted new photographs of Elian with Craig's permission. These showed Elian in the arms of his father, his eyes as bright and his gap-toothed smile as big as any boy on Christmas morning. The photograph of Elian, his dad, his dad's wife Nercy and their 6-month-old son seems incomplete without the printed message, "Seasons Greetings from the Gonzalez Family."

So. What'll it be? What's a Hallmark card next to something that might bring to mind that famous Holocaust image of the little boy with his arms in the air being roused from hiding by armed German soldiers.

Napoleon supposedly said that history is a fable agreed upon. Now, perhaps, it's all in the pictures.

Wire services contributed to this article.

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