Posted by: Ticktock | April 21, 2008

TIME Reframes Iwo Jima Flag Photo

War veterans and patriots are reported to be furious about TIME Magazine’s recent green border cover

These proud Americans could care less about the green color or the message of the featured article.  What seems to bother these overly-concerned citizens is the doctored cover photo of the classic World War II flag raising during the battle of Iwo Jima.  Instead of the flag being erected on top of the Mt. Suribachi volcano, TIME has superimposed a color image of a tree in it’s place.

NPR’s Talk of the Nation discussed the supposed controversy today.  One redneck caller called it “disgusting” and “sensationalist gunk” and said that he wouldn’t even open up the cover.  Disgruntled Iwo Jima veterans have also made a mountain of this molehill.  One vet, Donald Mates, declared that the editors would “go to hell” for their decision to adapt the iconic photograph into a message about global warming.  This is not an article from satirist newspaper The Onion; this is a real person saying that magazine editors will burn in eternal damnation for the indignity of substituting a tree for a flag in an old war photo.

I don’t want to take anything away from the brave men in this photograph.  All the men who fought in those great wars deserve respect.  I doubt that adapting the message of their historic photo is an insult to those men who fought that battle. 

What got me started on this topic (admittedly outside of my usual content) was that there was some skepticism about the image.  Many people for the last half century accused the photographer Joe Rosenthal of posing the men to stage the shot.  In fact, he did not and almost took the photo too late.  This was the second flag to go up for a variety of reasons, none of which, I’m sure, were to stage a photo.  Rosenthal did, however, stage the shot afterward of the men looking “gung ho”, and his affirmative answer as to a question of whether the photo was staged was meant to refer to the “gung ho” shot- not the flag raising.  But, it was too late, and the rumor started to spread (by Time-Life, actually) that the photograph was set up.  He spent his remaining years defending his integrity and reliving that moment over and over.

In my mind, it doesn’t really matter whether he posed them or that it was the second flag raising.  The image is symbolic now of sacrifice, patriotism, and unity in the face of adversity.  These attributes are entirely appropriate to map onto the war on global warming- a war we are losing against ourselves.  I think AP Writer Mitchell Landsberg said it best in an excellent article about Rosenthal…

Perhaps the best argument for Rosenthal’s photo is simply that it is powerful on a symbolic, not a literal, level. Americans responded to it because it was a stirring image of the victory they so badly craved. On that level, it is unassailable.

Marianne Fulton, chief curator of the International Center of Photography at George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., said the photo must be seen in the context of a perilous time.

“You’re worried about your life, your family, the future of the nation, and this really incredible picture of strength and determination comes out. A picture like that is a real gift.”

So maybe TIME did doctor the photo, but time itself has found a new need for that photo’s message.  Those men who raised that flag on Mt. Suribachi also helped raise the morale of a war-fatigued nation.  I find it sad that the article’s cover is the topic leading the discussion and not the content of the articles within.  But, maybe I don’t understand the sensitivities of our veterans and soldiers. 

Any thoughts? 



  1. Here are some:

    (1) I can honestly understand where those who are complaining about the cover are coming from. The photo was taken at a time of great significance, and in their minds, it is anathema to desecrate its symbolism. I have a feeling that they see this “tampering” of the photo as akin to someone burning the American flag. It is good to know that patriotism still lives strong in the U.S. because it is going to take an awful lot of it to pull our country together to battle a problem as significant as harming our planet. Even if many people in the U.S. could care less about what happens in the rest of the world, maybe they will care enough about the sustainability of their own country to work for change.

    (2) I don’t have a problem with the photo being edited since they have artistic license to do so. It is obvious that the editors of the magazine knew ahead of time what the photo emotionally conveyed to people, hence its use.

    (3) I have a different problem with the image. As an advocate for saving our planet from global warming, I am highly disappointed that they solely use an image of what amounts to “planting a tree” to make their point that we need to combat the problem. To me, the image is too benign. It makes it seem like we could solve our problem by only planting some trees, and we are way past that point. Also, the image does a great disservice to the peoples of the world by letting those who have contributed the most to our problems (governments and corporations) off the hook; planting trees is one thing, but getting governments and corporations to regulate emissions and stop abusing our planet is of utmost importance. Therefore, I would have used a collage of images on the cover (a factory in the U.S. or China spewing tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, hunks of glaciers cleaving off into the ocean, people suffering in a sustained drought, etc.) to get the point across more effectively.

    – Randy

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