I’m always interested (and/or exasperated) when photographic questions come to my attention through non-photography-specific channels. In this case, a tweet from Annalee Newitz pointed me to a post at the blog Crates and Ribbons titled “The Kissing Sailor, or ‘The Selective Blindness of Rape Culture.’”
The post concerns the Eisenstaedt V-J day photo, which has been in the news lately because of a recent book offering evidence for George Mendonsa and Greta Zimmer Friedman as the two subjects of the photo. (Quite a few people have been identified as the sailor and nurse over the years.)
The Crates and Ribbons post points out that the mainstream news coverage demonstrates (without recognizing) that the kiss in question might in contemporary terms be considered a sexual assault:
The articles even give us Greta’s own words:
It wasn’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and grabbed!
I did not see him approaching, and before I knew it, I was in this vice grip.
You dont forget this guy grabbing you.
That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me.
It seems pretty clear, then, that what George had committed was sexual assault. Yet, in an amazing feat of willful blindness, none of the articles comment on this, even as they reproduce Greta’s words for us. Without a single acknowledgement of the problematic nature of the photo that her comments reveal, they continue to talk about the picture in a whimsical, reverent manner, still mesmerized by his timeless kiss. George’s actions are romanticized and glorified; it is almost as if Greta had never spoken.
For some additional context, I did a quick search, figuring that the wonderful Iconic Photos blog probably had a post about the V-J Day photo, and of course it does, including some contact sheetage
and quotation from Eisenstaedt:
I was walking through the crowds on V-J Day, looking for pictures. I noticed a sailor coming my way. He was grabbing every female he could find and kissing them all — young girls and old ladies alike. Then I noticed the nurse, standing in that enormous crowd. I focused on her, and just as I’d hoped, the sailor came along, grabbed the nurse, and bent down to kiss her. Now if this girl hadn’t been a nurse, if she’d been dressed dark clothes, I wouldn’t have had a picture. The contrast between her white dress and the sailor’s dark uniform gives the photograph its extra impact.
So, if we define a nonconsensual kiss as a sexual assault, this photo is not a charming document of romantic celebration, but a visually striking slice out of a minor crime spree. (Also, note that Eisenstaedt is both observing the sailor’s kissing progress through the crowd but “hoping” and preparing for him to get to the unsuspecting nurse.)
Reactions to the Crates and Ribbons post are about what you’d think — some folks are disenchanted with the image, some dispute the use of the term “sexual assault”, some reject the idea of applying the term across generations, and of course some fall into the “feminism is dumb” camp. The comments thread is pretty interesting reading (both for good and bad reasons, depending on the comment), and I’d recommend perusing it, especially if you’re interested in splitting hairs over what is and isn’t sexual assault.
To phrase it in a less jargon-y way, the point is that what we’re looking it is not two people enthusiastically celebrating victory and the prospect of peace, but one person forcibly celebrating on another person. This is true if Friedman is in fact the woman in the photo; it is also true just going by Eisenstaedt’s account, regardless of who the woman was. And, as @Vossbrink points out, it is clear from inspection of the contact sheet: “The photo we know is the only one where it’s not obvious she’s fighting him.”
Friedman’s own interpretation of the photograph is very interesting. There’s a transcript of a 2005 interview with her at the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project, which some of the commenters at Crates and Ribbons pointed to — it’s short and you should just read it, but I’ll excerpt some of the relevant bits. (Note: I cleaned up the formatting and fixed a couple of errors for the sake of readability.)
Patricia Redmond: When he grabbed you and gave you a kiss, what did you feel like?
Greta Friedman: I felt that he was very strong. He was just holding me tight. I’m not sure about the kiss… it was just somebody celebrating. It wasn’t a romantic event. It was just an event of ‘thank god the war is over’ … it was right in front of the sign.
Patricia Redmond: Did he say anything to you when he kissed you?
Greta Friedman: No, it was an act of silence.
Patricia Redmond: What did you do the rest of the day, when you were off and celebrating?…
Greta Friedman: I went home!
Patricia Redmond: Did you think about “the kiss”…
Greta Friedman: Not until years later when I saw the picture.
Greta Friedman: …It wasn’t my choice to be kissed… (in 1945). The guy just came over and grabbed! (in 1980 for the reenactment of the kiss) I told him I didn’t want to redo that pose! We have the picture here, and it is kind of a reenactment of the pose and the sign on Time’s Square says, ‘It had to be you!’
Patricia Redmond: So Alfred Eisenstaedt has said that you two were indeed the kissing couple?
Greta Friedman: I don’t know if he really had such a great view of our faces. I think he was attracted more by the pose. It was a black and white shot, and as a photographer, he just knew that he had a good picture. It was an opportunity and that’s the job of a good photographer…to recognize a good opportunity.
Patricia Redmond: In the Frederick newspaper article, that told about the photograph and I quote: “It was an enduring symbol of the joy and relief felt by a nation at the end of the war.”
Greta Friedman: Right. Everyone was very happy; people on the street were friendly and smiled at each other. It was a day that everyone celebrated, because everybody had somebody in the war, and they were coming home. The women were happy, their boyfriends and husbands would come home. It was a wonderful gift finally, to end this war. It was a long war, and it cost a lot.
Patricia Redmond: How does it feel to be so famous?
Greta Friedman: It’s kind of fun, because it’s very accidental. Fame for just being there…being dressed right. Actually, the fame belongs to the photographer. He provided an art… I can’t call it a skill. He was an artist. I just happened to be there…and so did George.
Greta Friedman: …I think [George] was the one who made me famous, because he took the action. I was just the bystander. So, I think he deserves a lot of credit. Actually, by the photographer creating something that was very symbolic at the end of a bad period…it was a wonderful coincidence, a man in a sailor’s uniform and a woman in a white dress… and a great photographer at the right time.
I’m fascinated by how conscious and specific Friedman is in apportioning agency and intention between the parties involved, and differentiating between her experience of the kiss itself and the meaning and value of the photograph. It seems clear that her experience at that moment was sharply unpleasant but also fairly trivial and — until Friedman saw Eisenstaedt’s photograph and recognized herself — forgettable. It also seems clear that she values the symbolic worth of the photograph, which she treats as distinct from the circumstances of its creation and which she attributes entirely to happenstance plus Eisenstaedt’s ability to recognize an opportunity. (As opposed to the customary function of photographs for non-photographers — memorialization of a personally important experience.)
This is in contrast to the way Crates and Ribbons reads the photo — more or less as a transparent and instant window on the deed, the meaning of which is what matters and is under scrutiny. Eisenstaedt isn’t mentioned at all in the body of the post (although the photo is attributed and the post is tagged with his name), and there’s no speculation there about his intentions or actions before or after the photo. Just, “For so long, this photograph has come to represent that unbridled elation, capturing the hearts of war veterans and their families alike.”
And it is maybe worth thinking about how else the photographer could have proceeded, and with what results. Was Eisenstaedt aware of or concerned with the experience of the women of the sailor was grabbing? Is it reasonable (in that situation at that time) to expect that he should have been? Could he or his editors have selected a different frame from the sheet, or by framing, captioning, or other means should they have better indicated the nature of the scene? If so, would the result have been better photography? Would it have sold more or fewer magazines? And in a similar situation today, would or should a photographer be expected to do anything differently?
(Not to mention the question of what viewers can or should be expected to deduce, or suspect, or (hah) research when they view a photograph.)