This is the now famous shot of US Olympians Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) hailing a Black Power salute on the awards podium of the 1968 Summer Olympics. As an African-American and former tack athlete, I have always held this photo very near and dear to my heart. While on the surface, the frame may seem to show nothing more than an ordinary Black Power salute, but what cannot be captured in the frame is power of this particular salute. In the 1936 Jesse Owens won 4 gold medals in Hitler’s backyard (Berlin, Germany) at the height of the Eugenics ideology, which alluded to the thought that Blacks in every way were inferior. In front of an international audience, Hitler’s platform of pseudoscience collapsed at the hand of one man. In 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos used to the same Olympic platform to end another message to the world.
The year 1968 was tumultuous to say the least for African-American in the United States. Both civil rights leaders Robert Kennedy and Martin Lurther King Jr. had been assassinated prior to the Olympic Games. Moral in the movement was at an all time low. Black people were seemingly without leadership and without hope; then came the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Tommie Smith and John Carlos, after winning and placing 3rd in the 200m respectively, decided that they would use the Olympic podium to send a message of strength. They would show everyone back home “Black Pride” could not be killed. In a move of solidarity, silver medalist Peter Norman (Australia) took the stand with Smith and Carlos wearing an “Olympic Project or Human Rights” badge. As the National Anthem began to play, both Smith and Carlos raised their arms, and photographers capture an indelible Olympic moment.
There is another, perhaps more referred to capture of this same moment from farther shot and in color. I prefer this shot to that one for several reasons. For starters, while the more poignant part of the photo is Smith and Carlos, people must not forget Peter Norman. Once Smith and Carlos had planned to make their political gesture (which the Olympic Committee is strongly against), he could have easily refused to take the stage with them and in the eyes of the committee, he would have been perfectly justified. Instead, he actually pinned an OPHR badge to his jacket (which you cannot see as well in the color shot) and took the stage with them. By this photo being in black and white, it adds a sense of contextual drama to Smith and Carlos’s statement. Black and White are often used to visually incarnate God and Evil. I feel that this picture does some of the same. By leaving just black and white, it is almost saying there is no gray area on the civil rights issues. Either you support the movement, or you are against the movement.
Other points of interest in the photo would include John Carlos’s “wrong arm” salute. After some research, one would find that Smith and Carlos had only one pair of black gloves between them come time for the medal ceremony, so Carlos is actually wearing the left glove of Tommie Smith. I like the way the photographer (or editor) used space in the shot. There is not much room in the frame for anything besides that upon which you are expected to focus. This framing also gives you more detail on the faces (as opposed to the color version). This helps propel the drama of the moment. Take notice of the approximate symmetry of the shot as well. While Smith is clearly center, he is not dead center. Although Norman and Carlos are on either side of Smith, they do not share the side of the frame equally. This uneven distribution again forces your eyes to Smith. Perhaps the most regal eye catching part of the photo is Tommie Smith. If straight lines display strength in form, then he was strength at its finest. His arms and posture are absolutely tight and straight. The vertical line strong lines her creates signify both dignity and stability. This is why your eye is so keenly drawn to his figure. His reverently bowed head might tie everything together (in the frame and out). Despite what punishments may come for making a political statement at the Olympics, despite the international audience cheering or booing all around the stadium, Tommie Smith face reflects none of it. Without some much as a word, Tommie Smith told the world that Black Pride was not dead and the Civil Rights Movement would not be stopped.
This is “Brutality in Bangkok”. Photographer Neal Ulevich had witnessed the very depths of hell while shooting the Vietnam War, but nothing had prepared him for the day of October 6th 1976. Thailand’s government (its third in two years) was precariously preparing to crumble. Violent skirmishes between right-winged vocational students and left-winged university students began breaking out. That fateful morning in October, Ulevich was front row center for one of the more violent attacks. The previous night, two liberal students had been hung. When vocational students attacked university students the next morning, military forces had to be deployed. Gun fire rang out from the military as both student factions attempted to take cover. Eventually the right-winged vocational student surrendered. Ulvich had captured great shots (in spite of the harrowing experience) and was rushing to get them back to his editor when he noticed some commotion in the distance. A large crowd had gathered around the area where the two students had been hung the night before. Ulvich finds a man so possessed with anger that he beats the dead hanging body of one of the students with a folding chair. Ulvich makes sure no one is watching, snaps a few frames, and slips away without a word into Pulitzer Prize gold.
There are several things that make this photo a prize winner. If you pay attention to the rule of thirds, the cropping of this frame is brilliant. While the body hanging is in the center of the shot, it is not really the true focus of the shot. The actual focus is more the person swinging the chair. In fact, the chair itself roughly falls precisely on the first intersection of the thirds. The man swinging the chair is positioned around the first vertical third. His feet land approximately around the second horizontal third. All the “action” of the frame takes place in a well framed spot according to the rule of thirds.
A few things to pay attention to in the frame right away would be the color scale. This picture printed in black and white. Black and white helps the photo by not having any distracting colors. Imagine if someone had been wearing a particularly bright shirt, or perhaps the body hanging the center is especially bloody. This would detract attention from the attacking man, or the laughing child. Also it seems as if the weather added to the drama of the photo along with the color. There seems to be a dense fog in the air. This does two things. It obscures the buildings in the background and draws more focus to the crowd. It also blurs the vanishing point of the crowd. They may be just the people visible present, or the crowd may extend several more rows back. It is particularly hard to tell, so it gives the illusion that this crowd may be massive.
Maintain attention to the crowd. In addition to the way that they may extend back forever you want to also pay attention to the fact way that they vanish out of the side of the framing, yet there is a definite bend in their alignment (like a semicircle). The crowd is shot pretty much at “eye level”. We are not looking down or up at the people across the circle. Combine the leveling of the shot with the vanishing crowd at the edges and it brings you into the action. You feel that you are either in the center of the circle with the angry man and the body, or (using your imagination) the semicircle is actually a full circle, of which you are a participant in the chaos.
Aside from the positioning of the crowd, this photo is captivating because crowd reactions. The average person seeing this frame is probably caught off guard and at least a little shocked, but not in this crowd. Scanning the crowd slowly from side to side, you can see some students shocked and seemingly cringing as the man is about to deliver another blow to the hanging victim. One of the more eye catching crowd members is just to the right of the second vertical third. It is a little boy that is seemingly “tickled pink” with the brutality going on in front of him. From an emotional composition standpoint, this is gripping because it is in stark contrast to the typical “childhood innocence” that is displayed/portrayed in countless other photos. This photo brings you full into the violent and aggressive scope of the conflict going on in Bangkok at the time.