Toffs and Toughs: The Problem with Iconic Images

Toffs and Toughs

The word “iconic” is often overused, but this photograph, taken in 1937 and published in the News Chronicle with the caption, “Every picture tells a story,” definitely qualifies for that adjective. For years, this image symbolized the inequalities that long characterized British society. In an unmistakable way, the photo seemed to capture the differences not only between town and gown, but also poverty and privilege. Thanks to Facebook, Intelligent Life‘s most popular article right now is a 2010 piece about this very image:

http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/ian-jack/5-boys

We at One Thing after Another will leave it to you to read the article because we don’t want to spoil it. However, this story warrants several general observations. We accept photographs as truthful, but a photographer, of course, can often manipulate the framing of the scene as well as its content so it sends a particular message. And of course, every photo has a backstory that is not immediately apparent.

This photo was partially posed. Peter Wagner and Thomas Dyson, the two “toffs” from Harrow, were indeed waiting outside Lord’s cricket ground (Eton was playing Harrow at the time) for the Wagners to pick them up. The “toughs,” George Salmon, Jack Catlin, and George Young were trying to collect tips by opening car doors and carrying luggage. The extent to which the photographer, Jimmy Sime (who worked for London’s Central Press agency), moved the boys about is unclear, but at one point, he did tell the “toughs” to come closer to the “toffs” so he could get his photo. Sime saw the potential for a picture that could tell  a powerful story; he manipulated the situation so we could see what he wanted us to see. Once the photo circulated among the British public, it became a kind of social fact, an “Exhibit A” in the indictment of British social inequality.

There is no disputing the fact of great social inequality in Britain during the 1930s, but it is worth investigating the relationship between this photo and that social inequality. We can look at this issue in a number of ways. For instance, we can charge Sime with “lying” by manipulating the scene in order to tell a greater truth about British society.  Or, looking at it from another angle, we could argue that as a sensitive, British interwar observer, Sime expected to see inequality. We usually find what we expect to see (while ignoring what we don’t expect to see), and Sime was no exception. He found this inequality and took a picture of it. That photograph only perpetuated others’ expectations of seeing inequality and sustained the tradition of representation that stressed certain ideas about British society.

In this case, as with many others, however, it is difficult for real, living, breathing people to serve as symbols. The fit is often imperfect. For Sime, the boys simply represented inequality; that is the point of his photo. The toffs were wealthy and had a lifetime of privilege before them. The toughs had no such advantages and would have to scrap for everything they got, or so the argument went. Yet, as the article in Intelligent Life points out, real life was not so simple. In many ways, the toughs got the better deal in life, a development that seems to undermine the message of Sime’s photo.

Why dwell on this point? In our classes, we often use iconic images because they seem to distill important messages in especially memorable ways. Unfortunately, many of the images that we use are problematic because, as with the case of the toffs and the toughs, they elide important details and facts that might contradict their obvious message. Take, for example, this famous photograph from the Vietnam War with which many of you are probably familiar:

Saigon Execution

In this particular case, Eddie Adams, the photographer, did not seek to manipulate the scene. He happened upon an acquaintance of his, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, South Vietnam’s chief of national police, shooting Nguyen Van Lem, a suspected member of the NLF, and took a photo without even stopping to think. Adams snapped this photo in the middle of the fierce street fighting that took place in Saigon during the second day of the Tet offensive. According to interviews, under these chaotic circumstances, he did not find the execution extraordinary. Moreover, he knew that Loan believed Lem had helped execute one of Loan’s aides along with that aide’s entire family. Although he won a Pulitzer Prize for this photo, Adams was later surprised and disappointed to learn that anti-war protesters had seized upon this image as encapsulating all that was wrong about the war in Vietnam. As an essay from NPR points out:

Adams, who considered himself a patriot and a Marine, never came to terms with the fact that the anti-war movement saw that photograph as proof that the Vietnam War was unjustified. In fact, he believed to the end of his life that the picture only told part of the truth. The untold story was that on the day of the execution, an aide to Loan was killed by insurgents. After Loan pulled the trigger, he walked by Adams and said, ‘They killed many of our people and many of yours.” (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=102112403)

After the photo was published and widely distributed, Adams was horrified to find that he had destroyed Loan’s reputation. Years later, in a eulogy for Loan in Time magazine, Adams wrote:

The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, “What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?” (http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,988783,00.html)

Like any other document, a photograph must be read in context. Otherwise, it can lie, even without manipulation. Errol Morris has dwelled on this idea in an interesting book that originated as a series of essays in the New York Times:
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/04/books/review/believing-is-seeing-by-errol-morris-book-review.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0&gwh=AE5D06E61574BB0241D0EB5E7698156D&gwt=regi

“Every picture tells a story,” but when we see these kinds of photographs, we need to remember that every story is crafted. Moreover, these photos depict real people who have to live in a messy real world that is far more complicated than the story world in which images place them. The foregoing is just another way of reminding us historians that as we teach, we need to sustain a balance between graphic generalization (which is indispensable to teaching) and attention to detail (which is indispensable to truth).

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