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Eye on a Decade - History in Photography

Millions of words have already been spoken about the horrific recent events in the United States. Politicians, pundits, and journalists have shared their thoughts with us and told us what we should think. Yet when we look back on what happened, there are not many words we will remember as describing truthfully the magnitude of the tragedies in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. Most of us, on the other hand, will for the rest of our lives vividly remember several images. Some of them we saw on television, and some appeared in newspapers the day after the catastrophe.

Perhaps this is so because words simply cannot describe certain events fully. They cannot make us directly confront situations, moments in time, expressions on faces. And they cannot always convey the drama, the atmosphere and the physical context of most events. In short, they fail to confront us with the whole Truth.

It is for this reason that in recent history, images, rather than words, have so many times served as catalysts for important changes. The famous picture of a naked Vietnamese girl being held at gun point by American soldiers probably did more to galvanize the American public against that war than any speech given by anti-war protesters. In another context, pictures of people climbing over and later pouring through the Berlin Wall will in most minds remain an enduring image of the end of Communism.

However, even images that are seemingly less important than those documenting history's most dramatic moments can tremendously enrich our understanding of certain events and developments. In fact, good pictures mature with time. They have a quality that our mind does not, in that they capture and keep the spirit and the atmosphere of times which have passed. Seeing certain images that are only five or ten years old may, in a retrospective, provide us with a new understanding of events we had thought we understood. Our minds have a tendency to mix memories with opinions. Ideas about what happened in the past therefore often resemble badly doctored pictures. Being confronted with authentic images can act as a remedy; it can open not only our eyes but also our minds—usually for the better.

Prague Post - 3. 10. 2001