Photos Sear the Memory in a Way that Video Does Not

In today’s world of Internet publishing and streaming media, photographers are increasingly expected to practice multiple disciplines — namely, to provide both still and moving images from an event. Of course, I understand the desire for video, and I appreciate that it has its place.

But nothing can replace the power of a well-executed still shot.

We live in a period that is saturated with imagery. When I think of the images that are seared in my memory, however, almost all of them are individual moments captured in time.

Did you know that many of the most famous images in the history of photography had video counterparts? The videos in many cases still exist, but have been forgotten over the years.

Images of War

Take Iwo Jima, for instance. Joe Rosenthal’s immortal 1945 image of four U.S. Marines and a U.S. Navy corpsman raising the flag on Mount Suribachi has inspired war bond drives, memorials — and movies, from “Sands of Iwo Jima” to “Flags of Our Fathers.”

AP photographer Joe Rosenthal's famous photo (source: National Archives and Records Administration).

But what has become of the video of the event? Well, you can still find it on YouTube, but that’s about the extent of its legacy.

That’s not the only example. During the Vietnam War, this image by Eddie Adams, showing Lt. Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a prisoner in the street, symbolized the chaos and brutality of war.

The video of the execution, while brutal, did not embed itself into the public consciousness in the same way.

As Susan Moeller, author of Shooting War, has said of Adams’ image:

It was an image that was filmed by a TV camera crew, by one of the network crews, and there was a slice of that footage that appeared on the news that evening. But the still images lingered in the memory … they were seared into people’s brains in a way that television just couldn’t be.

Nick Ut’s photograph of a little girl, naked and crying as she runs from her village after a napalm strike, is another image from Vietnam that lingers in our collective memories.

The video of the event, while tragic, does not.

Frozen in Time

In these cases, as with so many others, the still images take fleeting moments and give them a sense of permanence and meaning.

On video, they seem like fleeting moments in the endless parade of fleeting moments we are exposed to every day.

Video can provide more information about an event, in the form of sound and motion. It can provide a better sense of “being there,” too.

But the power of a moment frozen in time is lost — and that remains the power of the still image.

5 Responses to “Photos Sear the Memory in a Way that Video Does Not”

  1. Funny, I was just commenting on this elsewhere with regard to Salgado's work. It's an especially powerful thing as the image serves as an aid to recalling the event itself. For almost every large public news story of my life I can recall at least one still image that encapsulated its meaning. The exception oddly, is one you mention. Although I know Nick Ut's image well, it is the video I really recall from the event. I was about 8 at the time it was shown on the evening news and it it really made an impact on me, perhaps much later even influencing me toward photojournalism as a career.

  2. I couldn't agree more about the power and the impact of a good captured image. Videos are too fast and the photo let us talk and think and tell the history behind it. I agree with Mark - Sebastião Salgado's work is extremelly impressive and powerfull. I remember froze and stare soo deeply a photo from an African father holding his child that my classmates had to talk me from that. really, there's NO video that beats a good picture. The emotion is totally different.

  3. Video has its strengths when used well in certain circumstances, but stills will always be more powerful and accessible when showing emotional moments.

  4. Brilliant. It's what I've felt for years and why I've concentrated on still photography. I do see the beauty in audio and video, but as far as searing the mind I couldn't agree more. Thanks.

  5. That's just a beautiful shot... A potential tear-jerker... So touching.

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