An Old Image and New Inspiration

A photograph can change our mind. It can change a lot of minds.

Let’s consider an example. In January 1968, the United States had been actively engaged in the Vietnam War for three and a half years. (Canada was involved too but that story is for another day.) Polls at the time indicated that a majority of Americans supported President Johnson’s efforts in Vietnam. Then came the Tet Offensive. In one day, North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong guerillas captured all or most of every South Vietnamese city. In an action that took only five seconds, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, South Vietnam’s national police chief, casually approached a Viet Cong suspect who was being held on the street. Loan fired his pistol into the suspect’s right temple, killing him instantly.

Photographer Eddie Adams captured the moment of the bullet’s impact. The photograph appeared on television and in newspapers around the world and across America. It changed minds. Subsequent polls indicated a significant uptick in Americans opposing the war. Within months, Johnson announced that he would not seek a second term and all presidential candidates campaigned on ending the war.

Many other photographs have had similar effects. I am betting you can easily picture the lone protester standing before the line of tanks in Tiananmen Square, the determined look on Terry Fox with the Trans-Canada Highway stretching forever behind him, and the red fireball of the second plane hitting the World Trade Centre. They touched our hearts and changed our minds. But there is one in particular that affected us then and that we need again to weave its magic.

On Christmas Eve in 1968, NASA astronaut William Anders peered out a small hatch window as his Apollo 8 spacecraft was beginning its fourth of ten orbits around the moon. He was gobsmacked. Grabbing his Hasselblad camera, Anders floated weightlessly to another window for a better view and snapped an image of the earth rising over the moon’s gray wasteland, reflecting sunlight in brilliant blue against the blackness of space.

(Photo: NASA)

NASA released the photograph on December 30. It was placed on a stamp and was seen in newspapers and magazines. The year had been horrendous. Americans had endured more of their children returning dead or damaged from a war in which fewer believed, a presidential election that had seen more of their children beaten by Chicago police, race riots that had set cities ablaze, and Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinated. Canadians suffered widening generational, gender, and racial divisions, bombs killing innocents in Quebec, and domestic terrorists throwing rocks at their prime minister. Tanks rolled in Czechoslovakia and tear gas scattered protesters in Paris, London, and Berlin.

And then, for a moment, with that terrible year in which it looked like the centre would not hold nearly over, everyone paused before the power of the picture of the little blue ball in space. The earth hung there without the invisible borderlines for which so many lives had been sacrificed. For a moment, it looked like we were not divided by nationhood, race, gender, religion, or the many other social constructs invented to define us and others. It looked like we were one. The picture also spurred the nascent environment movement, informed by the revolutionary concept that we are one people on one planet. Anders said that like millions of others the photograph made him realize, “This is the only home we have and yet we are busy shooting at each other, threatening nuclear war, and wearing suicide vests.”

If the year 1968 was terrible, 2020 is worse. But in tragedy there is hope. Maybe the global pandemic urges us to recall what the photograph had to say so many years ago – we are all in this together. The vaccines are here but none of us will be safe until all of us are safe – all of us; everywhere. Perhaps the photograph asks us to consider that while each country must commit to combatting climate change that none will be successful until we all are successful. Further, as we emerge from our isolation and all the stores reopen, maybe the photograph will remind us that we make and buy too much unnecessary stuff because it eventually all ends up getting thrown away and there really is no away.

The pandemic, climate change, and rampant, empty consumerism remind us that mother nature is always the last at bat. And even scarier is that mother earth does not need saving. If we fall to another pandemic, ignore the changing climate, and succumb to shopping as a leisure activity to fill holes in our souls then the earth will be just fine. We, of course, will be gone – victims of our greed and stupidity; our refusal to read obvious signs; and our stubborn refusal to heed the potent message of William Anders’ photograph.

Let’s look at the picture again. Let’s really look at it this time. Hopefully, with so much at stake and a better future to be forged from the current madness we’ll not just see it but hear it.

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