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Thursday, 21 April 2011


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Call me cynical, but when I looked at Loretta's exuberant shoulder floral arrangement this morning (I've seen the photograph before, but never noticed Mom), I sensed she was faking it big time.

The daughter's enthusiasm seemingly far beyond that of his wife's created for me an initial gut feeling that something was wrong. And that was before I read the Dear John part.

The Dear John part is sad, and shows one of the consequences of war. And I agree, it can be seen in the photo that he returns to a familiy that has changed. But then, that's not the point. If anything, this photo shows the joy of father and children being reunited. And the children all showing with pride the photo of this event, proves that their joy and the bond between father and children are stronger than divorces and wars.

Tom Hetherington is one of those people who had such an impact on how we get our news. He did amazing work in Liberia called Long Story Bit By Bit: Liberia Retold. He compiled drawings, photographs and interviews over a five year period. RIP.

I would argue that his wife, not the war, tore his family apart, but that's just me. Terrific photo without the back story, sad photo with. Amazing how context changes your opinion of a photo.

Such a sad, sad story. How very sad.

I'm reminded of Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" which I thought was an excellent and enlightening account of how the symbolism projected onto a photograph can betray a less ideal, but more truthful, reality. In that instance, the film suggests the truth was actively suppressed to avoid sabotaging the symbolic power of the image to sell war bonds. The tagline says it all:

"All it takes to win is the right picture."

I heard Gary Winogrand say something like a photo can't tell a story. It just describes the scene, and the viewer tells the story. I think we view the photograph through slightly corrective lenses ground with personal experience. My story would be that a reunion like this would likely be fraught with mixed emotions from the wife regardless of her intentions. Kids and young adults would be much more likely to be less conditional or reserved with their joy.

From the article; "and it took a while to let him back into our lives". I'm guessing he came back a very different person after his wartime experiences. Integrating back into his family and moving on with his life would have been a monumental challenge.

I don't think that I've ever seen the full frame of this photograph. Seeing it here, I actually think it is better *with* the addition of the figure on the far left of the picture. For me, it takes the event and the moment out of isolation somehow and places it in a wider world.

"I would argue that his wife, not the war, tore his family apart, but that's just me."

I really don't know. I don't know the people involved or what the situation was in detail. I suspect, though, that he would have been listed as MIA (missing in action) for much of the 5+ years he was in prison, and lots of those guys were presumed dead. (As many of them were.) So it's quite possible that if she had hope of his return she would have waited, but in the belief that he was unlikely to return she might have had to face the decision at some point to get on with her life. I'm sure I've read other stories where this is the case, although, again, I know nothing about these people specifically.

The flip side of the same coin are people--and there were some, I'm sure I've read about them--who held out hope for one, two, or even more decades after the war that their MIA relatives would still be found alive. I'm not saying I wouldn't do the same thing myself, and I'm definitely not criticizing anyone's choice, but at some point, if they've put their lives on hold, I imagine it might begin to impede their progress in life if they don't move on.

Tough choices any way you slice it.


I respectfully disagree with Jim McDermott and MJFerron. To me, the daughter's reaction is what makes this photograph. Forget the mother and the back-story of a failing marriage. That girl's human emotion is what makes this a great image.

I may be biased, in that I am a soldier who returned from war, and I have a daughter who is now the age of Lorrie Stirm in the image. Nevertheless, the real power in this image is not with the carping reality of a mother who will always have her children, but the unexpected joy of a father who never thought that he would ever see his children again, and his children who never thought that they would see him again.

Truly, this is a moment in time.

Oh, no question. It's still a great picture, absolutely, for the reasons you say.


Should be on your great photography book list.

I'm not positive about this (but I'm pretty sure), but I believe that another newspaper photographer was standing right next to Slava Veder when he took "Burst of Joy" and took a virtually identical photograph at almost exactly the same instant, and published the photograph in his newspaper. Because Veder's went out on the AP Wire, and was published nationally, his became famous and he won the Pulitzer. The other guy's photo...fffffft. LIfe sucks and then you die.


Perhaps you'd consider posting the 1972 'napalm girl' picture of Nick Ut which has similar 'story behind the symbol' connotations.

See here:



Thanks Mike...your memory serves you better than mine. I have to suppose then that you have posted yet another 'story behind the symbol' picture...the one of eddie adams, as well...


Makes me think of Bob Jackson and Jack Beers and their split-second separated photos of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald.


In my pathetic way, I was attempting to be darkly humorous. My perception doesn't quite run to gauging the state of service marriages from over-sized floral arrangements. I'd need chicken giblets for that.

The Vietnam era "photo" I'll never forget was Life magazine's photo spread that showed the faces of U.S. personnel who had died in one week of the war. No scenes of death and destruction (and no photos of the Vietnamese who had been killed). Just all those young faces, row after row, page after page.

@ Jim McDermott,

I'm sure you are right. Chicken giblets are what most of us need to see into the future. Nevertheless, it is true to say that having had no contact with his family for nearly six years, Lt Col Stirm was handed a letter from his wife on release from Hanoi - a couple of days before this picture was shot - that said that she had "moved on". It must have made the reunion very difficult for both of them. I struggle to put myself into his - or her - position, but there is the simple humanity of his child running at him with such open emotion.

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