Have you seen this photo? It was taken on Wednesday night, as Vancouverites rioted following their home team’s loss in the last game of the Stanley Cup Finals. It appears to show a couple kissing passionately amid chaos in the streets of Vancouver — as if there were no better place in all the world for a little amour fou
The striking shot became a sensation even before photographer Richard Lam knew exactly what he had caught with his DSLR (a Nikon D3, if you’re curious) as he snapped shots of the police trying to clear the crowd from the streets. The quality of the colors and light would have made for a fairly arresting image even without the sex appeal.
Once loosed on the Internet, any popular piece of media is as likely as not to become a subject of derision — or at least healthy skepticism. And so it was with the Kissing Couple. Many viewers couldn’t believe that the shot wasn’t staged.
Fuel was added to the fire when a second image started making the rounds. It looked like a camera-phone snapshot, and it showed a very different view of the same incident. Suddenly, it looked for all the world like a small group of guerilla imagemakers was posing the Kissing Couple for their moment in the spotlight. And the Internet wanted to know: What is really going on here?
It got me thinking about some issues related to filmmaking. One of them is the question of authenticity. Photojournalists and documentarians are often held to a high standard when it comes to the perception of objectivity. Even innocent Photoshop manipulations that make an image pop, or alter it to fit a given page layout, can be off limits if they’re thought to misrepresent reality. (And if the photographer manipulating them lacks the skills to avoid getting caught as he clones textures or other elements in the scene
.) At any rate, it seems difficult to imagine that Lam would be complicit in staging or manipulating such an image, since it would clearly put his career in jeopardy.
Unlike some other famous cases
where images were tweaked into more aesthetically striking or politically advantageous shots, nobody was accusing Lam of cutting and pasting the man and woman into the scene. Rather, observers who voiced doubts were actually demanding something very basic that the image wasn’t giving them. They demanded story
, and the photograph didn’t give them that story. It was … well, it was just an image.
But who were those crazy kids? Were they agitating for sanity in the chaos, admonishing hockey fans to make love, not war? Were they simply exhibitionist pranksters? Were they artists, contrasting the woman’s bare skin against the riot gear worn by the authoritarian gentleman in the picture’s foreground? Was the woman somehow incapacitated, and being victimized by a passer-by?
Well, truth isn’t always stranger than fiction. Once the smoke cleared, it became obvious that, while the image is extraordinary, the story behind it is quite ordinary. This morning, reporters discovered
that the man in the picture is Australian native Scott Jones and the woman is his Canadian girlfriend, Alexandra Thomas. Thomas had been knocked to the ground and, apparently, injured as the riot police cleared the street. Her legs are exposed not because she’s making love, but because she’s in pain. Jones was comforting the distraught Thomas in her time of need. (In the overhead snapshot above, the lines of police are not far outside of the frame.)
I’m not sure why, but knowing that much about the image both clarifies my gut-level interest in the picture — gosh, I hope Thomas wasn’t badly hurt and got the treatment she needed — and diminishes it. If it turns out someone was injured by the police, and the Kissing Couple wasn’t actually kissing at all but weeping, then the photo isn’t the fun, life-affirming celebration it appears at first blush to be. In fact, it becomes a downer, and perhaps an indictment of over-zealous crowd-control tactics. But, absent that sobering context, the photo seems improbably romantic. It lies to us. Does that make it a lesser picture?
I’m reminded — again
— of filmmaking legend Terrence Malick and his longstanding avoidance of the press. Maybe he, too, feels that images are more poetic and perhaps more resonant when they have the air of mystery about them. Explaining the creative idea behind every shot or sequence in The Tree of Life
might have the effect of rendering them less compelling for an audience that, perhaps, understands them to mean something different from what was intended. A photograph or a film isn’t the same thing as a joke, but I’ve always appreciated E.B. White’s famous admonition: “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”
If you really want to see this particular frog die, check out the above video shot by student photographer Emily Nicole Edgar and published by the Vancouver Sun
. There’s nothing romantic about the scene. The photograph, and the event it really depicts, are worlds apart. I hasten to add that I don’t mean to criticize Lam or suggest that he’s dishonest — he got the absolute finest images he could under the circumstances and sent them to his editors, who chose the best ones, absent context. I very much enjoyed this interview
, published today at Popular Photography
‘s website, in which Lam talks about what it was like on the street. All these data points are part of the story behind the picture, and I’m honestly not sure whether it all makes the image itself more compelling or less. But it’s a fascinating story
. And maybe that’s what matters.