Sunday, March 17, 2013

Burst of Joy

In my career as a journalist, I have known several people who truly were gifted at photography.

Personally, I have never been much more than an aim–and–shoot photographer. When I was a reporter, I occasionally took a camera with me and returned with acceptable photographs that ran with my stories. But I never mastered the intricacies of photography. Never came close to snapping a photograph that was worth the proverbial 1,000 words or a Pulitzer Prize.

I've always been a little envious of those folks who had a photographer's eye. I've been told that I am a good writer, and one person even told me that my writing was like music, which appealed to me because I love music even though I'm not terribly musical.

Music is an art form, and I love the arts. I get that from my mother, I suppose. She was a first–grade teacher, and she used her classroom to spread her creative wings. In fact, after she died, we received a letter from an old friend of my parents. He said that he had long suspected that, if Mom had not gone into teaching, her artistic gifts would have drawn her to the stage.

Anyway, Mom always encouraged a love of the arts — and writing was one of them. Her encouragement sure worked on me. I have always loved to read, and writing has always been more pleasure than work for me.

But writing has never seemed that artistic to me. Maybe that is because it has always come easily to me, maybe too easily at times, and I've always felt that great art requires great effort — like giving birth.

But, for some people, maybe it doesn't require a great effort. Maybe it really is as effortless as it seems.

Maybe that is how it is with great photographers.

Great photography, like the theater, excels at capturing dramatic moments in life, and there have been few moments in my lifetime that were more dramatic than when American prisoners of war started coming home from Vietnam in 1973.

I saw many dramatic photographs in those days. In fact — in hindsight — 1973 was filled with dramatic moments. It was the year that Richard Nixon famously declared that he was not a crook — an astonishing assertion for a president to make — a few months after it was revealed that Nixon had been recording Oval Office and telephone conversations for a couple of years. It was the year that Rose Mary Woods tried to take the heat for her boss — and failed. Her re–creation of her alleged error was preserved by many photographers.

But the most dramatic photographs of that year came when the POWs began coming home from Vietnam.

For the most part, America's veterans were treated shabbily by their fellow Americans. To an extent, it was understandable that Americans behaved as they did. They were frustrated by the waste of the war, and they felt deceived by their government. Being unable to take out their frustrations on the people who were really responsible, they lashed out at the most visible and most accessible symbols of the war — the young men who fought in it.

That wasn't fair. Soldiers carry out orders. They don't make policy. Even so, many Americans — to their everlasting shame — greeted returning Vietnam vets in the vilest ways.

Not so at Travis Air Force Base in northern California on this day in 1973.

Associated Press photographer Sal Veder happened to be in the right spot at the right time to snap a photo (above) that came to be known as "Burst of Joy." Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm was greeted by his family after spending more than five years as a prisoner of war. His 15–year–old daughter led the way, her arms outstretched. Her brothers, sister and mother followed, each face glowing in a radiant smile.

When I first saw that photo, it seemed to be the perfect bookend for a painful chapter in American history. It took many photos to tell the story of the Vietnam war — the photo of Vietnamese children running from their burning schoolhouse showed a side of war that non–combatants seldom see, and the photo of a young girl kneeling over the body of a victim at Kent State illustrated the divisions at home.

"Burst of Joy" allowed Americans to feel good again after years of feeling bad.

But there is a truth behind pictures that can't be seen — and the truth behind "Burst of Joy" was the fact that Stirm, who had been released by North Vietnam only three days earlier, had received a letter from his wife on the day of his release telling him that their marriage was over.

I don't know if the children knew about this so their smiles may well have been genuine. But the smile on Loretta Stirm's face, at least, hid a darker truth about the price of war.

Veder won a Pulitzer Prize for the photo he shot of the homecoming, and copies of it are on display in each of the children's homes.

But the focal point of the photo, Lt. Col. Stirm, does not. For him, it is a painful reminder.

Nevertheless, "Burst of Joy" continues to be "part of the nation's collective consciousness, often serving as an uplifting postscript to Vietnam," wrote Carolyn Kleiner Butler for the Smithsonian magazine eight years ago. "That the moment was considerably more fraught than we first assumed makes it all the more poignant and reminds us that not all war casualties occur on the battlefield."

No comments: