The Power of Icons

Harriman and Lucaites discuss the iconic status of the photo of the flag raising on Iwo Jima, and in the process, shed light on the more abstract role of the icon in American culture. Their insight is perhaps more relevant than we’d hope it to still be, given the increasing divisions between subcultures in our country. But their strong arguments about an icon’s function and methods thereof provide a template for the creation of new icons, particularly photos, that can help provide a common language for each of the subcultures in the archipelago that is America’s modern culture.

This is the photo:


Some viewed it “as a beautiful monument to democratic sacrifice and ‘national unity of purpose’.” Others, later, viewed it “as a model for unreflective respect for authority, habitual conformity, and other excessively majoritarian and exclusionary attitudes.” The authors use these conflicting views of the same iconic image to argue that some of its power derives from its ability to “mediate the experience of citizenship across the political spectrum.” The picture itself has noted aesthetic qualities, but more importantly, it is both specific enough (to the event it depicts) and abstract enough (the subjects are anonymous, the landscape is undistinguished) to be adopted as a symbolic representation of different, even conflicting, beliefs.

The authors further point out that after its establishment as a trope, the image is in a sense modular — the soldiers can be replaced, as can the flagpole, the flag, even the setting — to allow perturbations that further a different message while still relying on the visual power and nearly-universal recognition of the original image. They summarize:

The appropriations of the Iwo Jima icon reveal that it provides a means for reaffirming, contesting, and negotiating individual attitudes toward collective experience. These attitudes range from piety to cynicism, and they may well be one of the fundamental dimensions of public life.”

I could say more about the photo itself and its particular reception, use, and re-use in American culture, but much more interesting is the authors’ subsequent discussion of this image as an icon in general. They point out that unlike most images, the icon “can encompass the full range of public address and response.” And indeed, they make a strong case for this image’s status as “iconic.”

As noted above, it is important that an icon be able to be used for different purposes, by different subcultures, in different contexts. And by doing so, the icon establishes a link among these subcultures. They are linked by the visual language of the icon; it is a sort of common symbol used in each of their different languages, and can be recognized even when it represents a different, even opposing, Burkean attitude. Perfectly summarized here:

[…] the iconic image is being used frequently to express all of these attitudes. Thus, there is good reason to claim that it is not always relaying the same meaning, yet it is a common resource for constituting and negotiating public culture.”

Today’s America is largely divided, but not just between left and right. That may be the largest cut, but there are others inside of, outside, of and intersecting it. We applaud an “intersectional” approach to understanding issues but have little ability to deal with the complexities involved. For instance, read Gina Crossley-Corcoran’s breakdown of explaining white privilege to a a broke white person. Colliding stereotypes make it difficult to reason about group cultures, attitudes, and behaviors. Many groups, faced with the difficulty of understanding the “other”, have given up entirely. See the breakdown of communication between traditionally democratic voters and their party, which led traditionally democratic communities to vote largely for Trump. Or the liberal’s continued inability to empathize, let alone listen, to a conservative’s reasons for voting for him.

Communication seems to have broken down entirely. It’s not a matter of arguing with those whose beliefs we disagree with; recommendation algorithms give us what we ask them to, which is a torrent of think-pieces, updates, and blog posts that already agree with our world view. When we do interact with those of a different subculture, it’s become difficult to find a shared language. Enter the icon, particularly the iconic image, which

[…] can foster social connectedness, political identity, and cultural continuity not because it has a fixed meaning apprehended by all spectators, but because it seems to provide that meaning while allowing more situated identification that includes artistic reworking on behalf of a wide range of attitudes”

So how do we create them? The authors argue that to be an icon, “the image has to retain a sense of autonomy from either popular taste or elite interests,” and that sense of autonomy seems to come “in part from the aesthetic quality and cultural richness of the image.” The image must represent broad ideals that can be lauded by all groups. The Iwo Jima photograph, as an example, represents egalitarianism, nationalism, and civic republicanism. And that’s exactly why it no longer has the power it once did: conservatives have rejected egalitarianism for fatalism, the left has rejected nationalism for globalism, and both sides have rejected civic republicanism for individualism.

But one positive development gives me hope: the medium of the image has become more and more important, subsuming most communication. The iconic image should be as well received as ever and spread faster than ever before. And by doing so, work to heal the divisions between subcultures that are further divided than ever before. It is our role as photographers to give society these images.



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