I have always said if you witness the most beautiful or amazing moment alone, it is but a dream. If you witness the most beautiful or amazing moment with another person, it has become a reality; someone else can testify to it.
Pictures matter to those who lived that moment. They matter as witnesses to history and to those who view them.
My grandmother Michelle Green is a survivor of the Hérault massacre.
Hérault was a small suburb in French-colonial Saigon, Indochina. Tensions were high as Japanese forces retreated following the end of World War II.
Locals blamed the French for harsh conditions imposed by the Japanese.
On Sept. 24, 1945, the enraged locals woke my grandmother and her sleeping family.
They, along with other families, were separated into groups.
Some were led into the woods, to be tortured and murdered.
My grandmother was the only survivor from her group.
I heard her story several times over the years. Once, after sharing it with a group of people, she showed them a family portrait book. It contained not only typical family pictures but pictures of her family lying where they were murdered.
The pictures are important to her.
As I grew up, I searched online to learn more about what happened to her family.
Until recently, only a sentence or two could be found.
It’s as if history has forgotten what happened that night, but her pictures serve as a witness to testify to future generations of the brutality committed.
There are people today who claim the Holocaust never happened. If not for photojournalists such as Margaret Bourke-White, who captured images of concentration camps, the darkest moment of our humanity could be dismissed as propaganda.
Photos serve as witnesses to history.
Photographs reach out from the page and grab the attention of the viewer, compelling the viewer to draw in and learn more, or shudder away in disgust – both denying the viewer ignorance of the suffering.
Alice Seeley Harris’ photograph of a man sitting next to the severed hand and foot of his murdered 5-year-old daughter, who had been cannibalized by men recruited by King Leopold II of Belgium to make sure labor quotas were met, is a vital image of what might be the first international multimedia human rights campaign in history.
Robert Capa’s photographs of soldiers trudging through the tide of Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, are some of the first things I recall when I think about the history of D-Day.
Capa’s “The Falling Soldier” is a perfectly timed image of a Spanish Loyalist being shot in the head. In eighth grade I saw this image and wanted to know “why?” Why was this man killed? What did he die for?
Joe Rosenthal’s iconic image of U.S. Marines raising the U.S. flag over Mount Suribachi gave hope to a nation that had lost many service members in the Pacific conflict during WWII.
Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer-winning photo of a starving girl, barely more than a skeleton, hunched over and stalked by a vulture nearby, brought awareness to starvation in Sudan.
Reuters’ picture of a Russian soldier playing an abandoned piano in Chechnya still elicits as much emotion out of me as my first viewing. It reminds me of the soothing allure of music, even in grim conditions.
Todd Robertson’s 1992 photo of a young white boy clothed in the Ku Klux Klan’s white robes, his left arm reaching forward to touch the riot shield of a black Georgia state trooper, reminds the viewer hate is taught, not genetic.
Can you imagine trying to explain your most vivid dream or nightmare to another? Your description will never do your dream justice.
“The most powerful weapon in a world has been, and can be a photograph. Military weapons can only destroy. Cameras in the hands of photographers with hearts can capture love – hope – passion – change lives and make the world a better place … and it only takes 1/500th of a second. Life goes on – we photograph it. But it’s much better with love.” – Eddie Adams, an American Pulitzer-winning photojournalist who captured politicians, celebrities and 13 wars.