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Kiss in war

Two lovers caught in a passionate embrace.  He on the left, she on the right.  Their faces barely recognizable as their bodies meld into one another.  Oblivious to all that surrounds them, it is a tender, private, intimate moment in a public space.

At first blush it could be two individuals (once again) performing the now famous Times Square Kiss in a modern setting.  But look again.  The differences are both subtle and profound.  Neither is wearing a recognizable uniform.  She is actively engaged in the kiss, her arms pulling him towards her as much as (if indeed not more than) he is pulling her towards him. Notice for example how his right arm seems barely to be holding her while her arms reach fully around him, holding him in place. More interesting still is the fact that she is holding a slab of concrete in one hand, her finger nails giving the impression of being freshly manicured.  If the sign of the kiss in the original photograph was animated by an aggressive, masculine representation of state military power, here the kiss is no less a sign of aggression—it is hard to imagine that the concrete slab would be used as anything other than a weapon, particularly given that the caption tells us that this is taken at the site of a protest—but it is now no longer institutionalized by the state and it is gendered feminine.  Last, and perhaps most important, while the kissers are plainly and visibly in a public space, there are no onlookers who can channel a public attitude about what is going on.  Indeed, there is a clear sense of voyeurism here as we, the viewers, seem to be intruding on an altogether private moment.

 So what are we to make of this photograph?  The caption identifies the kissers as protestors in Caracas, Venezuela, the site of prolonged and massive public protests against rampant crime, protracted food shortages, and an altogether ineffective and authoritarian government.  The government crackdown against such protests has resulted in nearly forty deaths and hundreds of injuries, leading to demands for investigation by the Organization of American States (OAS).  That too has produced its own manner of controversy as the OAS leadership challenged the legitimacy of opposition leader Maria Corina Machado to address the body.  When she was finally allowed to speak, the sessions were held behind closed doors; one member of the OAS noted that the meetings would be conducted “With total transparency: In privacy.” The photograph above seems to mock this “war is peace, slavery is freedom” logic as it failingly purports to perform intimacy in a public space under the broken veil of privacy.  There may be no viewing public observable to legitimize the union, but then of course there is the camera and our own spectatorial gaze which gives the lie to the whole process.  Transparency in private is at best a comfortable fiction and at worst an intentional deception.

There is an additional dimension to the photograph that bears attention, and it has relatively little to do per se with the economic and political turmoil in Venezuela.  Instead, it concerns how we understand  Alfred Eisenstadt’s Times Square Kiss and all it stands for in our cultural memory.  The original kiss photograph took place on the occasion of VJ Day and the end of World War II.  It is often remarked as illustrating the return to normalcy.  But its contrast with the image above helps to reveal how constructed the conventions of such normalcy can be: men kissing women, women being kissed; the legitimation of violence as a manifestation of masculine, state governed military institutions; the forced separation of Eros and Thanatos; the performance of intimacy in public, and so on.  All such constructions—or should we call them “comfortable fictions”— indicate a particular worldview, to be sure, and perhaps even one that we might want to endorse, but the point is that it is particular, not universal.  Each photograph shows “a” truth, or many such truths, but certainly not “the” truth, however objective the photographic representation of the event on hand might be.

As the song says, a kiss is just a kiss … or is it?

Photo Credit: Christian Veron/Reuters

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A Second Look: A Kiss is Just a Kiss … Or is it?

It is perhaps the most famous kiss in the annals of kisses.  But the question has now been raised, is it more than just a kiss?  And more, could it be an instance of sexual assault in full view of the public?  There is much to suggest that, as it has typically been portrayed, the photograph is the representation of a joyous kiss celebrating the end of a war and the return to normalcy.  And perhaps the most important evidence here is the reaction of the members of the public who look upon the heterosexual kissers approvingly, smiling rather in the way we might imagine an older generation’s response to the exuberance of young love.

But there are also reasons for concern.  The sailor is clearly the aggressor and the nurse is clearly passive.  Take note of the fact that she is not returning his embrace.  Indeed, from one perspective, at least, she appears to have gone limp, succumbing but hardly complicit.  And then there is this: The most recent woman to be identified as the nurse, Greta Zimmer Friedman, reports that “[i]t wasn’t my choice to be kissed.  The guy just came over and grabbed!”  And more, “I did not see him approaching, and before I knew it, I was in his vice grip [sic].”  And then this, “That man was very strong.  I wasn’t kissing him.  He was kissing me.”  If this were to be reported today it is pretty clear that we would judge the sailor’s behavior as more than just inappropriate but as a sexual assault.  The question seems to be, should we impose contemporary norms on what we might imagine as a somewhat distant culture?  The answer is not obvious.

Perhaps we should begin with some context.  Everyone remembers the photograph as an icon of VE Day.  What most forget is that it was one of a series of images in a Life magazine photo essay titled “The Men of War Kiss From Coast to Coast,” and more to the point it was the last image in the array and the only one to occupy a full page.  To a number all of the other photographs depict lascivious if not downright transgressive public acts (here,  here and here).  But, and here is the point, in almost every instance, the women appear to be—or are described in the captions—as being complicit.  When we turn to the “Times Square Kiss” in this context we see something that seems to be the model of restraint: two kissers lost in passion even as they enact the decorum that is the necessary discipline of public life.  We hardly attend to the original caption that notes, “an uninhibited sailor [who] plants his lips squarely on hers.”  It was clearly a different time.  As one soldier from the “Greatest Generation” was quoted in the Saturday Evening Post in 1944, among the things we fight for is “the priceless privilege of making love to American women.”  And in their own way, this full array of Life photographs makes the point.

And yet there is something altogether dissatisfying with leaving it at that.  And not just because times have changed.  Ariella Azoulay has recently asked, “Has anyone ever seen a photograph of a rape?”  Her point is not that such photographs do not exist – they do, however rare.  Nor is it that they are not available for viewing – they are, although again their circulation is rather limited.  Rather, her point is that even as we have reconstituted our notion of rape since the 1970s in ways that liberalizes the meaning of sexual assault and underscores the responsibility of the state to protect women, it continues to be an invisible object in the public discourse, an image that we proscribe from showing and, more importantly, fail to see even when it is before our eyes.

The real challenge here then is not so much to critique the blind sexism of an earlier moment in our history, however much it might be mischaracterized as a golden past, but to question why we continue to refuse to see what might now be before our eyes. Put differently, the question is not what does this photograph tell us about our past, but rather what does our refusal to see the photograph in the context of Greta Zimmer Friedman’s memory of that day tell us about our present.

Photo Credit: “VJ Day in Times Square, August 14, 1945,” by Alfred Eisenstaedt, © Time Inc.

We have previously written about this photograph on this blog (hereherehere, here, here, here, and here) and in print (here and here).

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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