According to Hariman and Lucaites, iconic images are those that are recognized by everyone and are understood to be representations of historically significant events, which for the most part was supported by findings in this study.[1] Among the participants, there was a 82 percent recognition rate of the iconic photos and a 70 percent rate of general understanding.  However when measured for a sophisticated understanding of the photographs, the rate drops drastically to 42 percent.  Participants indicated a general recognition of the photos, but were only able to verbalize vague details of the photograph’s importance, which was consistent with the findings in Perlmutter’s study that very few participants could provide a thorough description of the context or circumstances of the photo.[2] However, Perlmutter also concluded that participants who were in the stages of adolescence or early adulthood when they saw the photo for the first time would retain more of the details, which was not true for this study.[3] These findings indicate the possibility that the purpose of iconic photos have changed over time for the audience.  As the details of the photos faded from memory, the iconic photos became more important as overarching representations of the Vietnam War.

Perlmutter also outlined the 11 categories that constituted an iconic photo: celebrity, prominence, frequency, profit, instantaneousness, transposability, fame of subjects, importance of event, metonymy, primordially and/or cultural resonance, and striking composition.[4] These 11 categories were coded for throughout the participant interviews to compare a scholar’s understanding of an iconic image versus the casual viewer’s understanding.  Findings showed that the general public was in tune to some of Perlmutter’s categories, but not all of them.  Participants were primarily tuned in to celebrity, frequency, and instantaneousness.  They rarely mentioned transposability, fame, or importance of event, and they never talked about profit.  Their failure to reference the “importance of event” quality also reiterates that they did not recognize these photos as representations of “historically significant events.”[5]

When the participants viewed the photos, they most often made connections to personal memories and memories created by the media.  Some of the most prominent categories that were addressed in the memories were political attitudes, friends/family, and the draft.  Sometimes direct connections were made between the photo and participants’ memories, sometimes there was no connection, and sometimes the memory they expressed was based off of a misconception of the photograph.  It is possible that a lack of understanding of the details of the photos could have prohibited the participants from making more precise connections between the photographs and their memories.  The category that was the most prominent among the memories was “war today.”  In this case, participants did not use the photos to reference a story from their past, but instead, they used the photo to draw a connection to the present day.  This finding showed that history is an important aspect in our understanding of our present-day condition.

This study showed that the iconic photos do play a role in shaping understanding of the Vietnam War era, but they are not necessarily used to document the events.  The photos rarely took the participants back to the precise event, but they did take them to another place or memory.  The photos took them back to a memory during that time period, or to a way they once viewed the world, or even to the present day, using the photo as a means of interpreting the current world around them.  Shen found a link between the dynamics of news framing and audience responses through the examination of schema.[6] Schema is a term described by psychologists as a cognitive structure that represents knowledge about a subject.  Schema are kept in an individual’s mental “storage bin” and once schema are activated by the media—in this case, by the iconic photographs—they can affect the interpretation and evaluations of other related information.[7] The participants in this study were drawing on schema to understand the photographs in a historical context and then use the photographs to frame their memories of the time period of the Vietnam War.[8]


The results of this study must be considered within its limitations.  First of all, there were only 10 participants who were interviewed.  The long-form interviews did not allow the time for more interviews, and a larger sample of people could have created different results for research question one, whether or not the participants recognized and understood the details of the iconic photos.  A larger sample of people would have also yielded a larger amount of memories to code and examine.

Due to Institutional Review Board (IRB) guidelines, the participants were notified that they would be viewing graphic photographs of the Vietnam War prior to their interviews.  This could have allowed them time to think about the photographs that they would be looking at prior to their participation; therefore there could have been a “priming” effect with some participants.

All participants were shown the photographs in the same order, but the order of the photographs could have influenced their reactions to the content and their memories.  When examining their memories, there was no way to know if they were responding to the photograph in front of them, or if they were still thinking about the photographs they had previously seen.

This study was not a psychological study.  Although it was examining memories, the goal was not to reach an understanding on an individual psychological level, but rather to use the memories to examine how participants made sense of the photos in terms of history.  This study was not focused on the psychological process of remembering, but rather on the outcome that the memories provided.

Future Research

Perlmutter concluded that participants would be more likely to understand details of photographs that were published around their time of adolescence or early adulthood.  Due to the constraints of this study, the participants were only shown photographs of the Vietnam War era, which would have fallen into that time category.  It would have been interesting to expand this study, also showing the participants photographs of an event that preceded their lifetime (the Spanish Civil War or WWII), as well as photos of events which occurred more recently (the Gulf War or September 11), in order to further test Perlmutter’s conclusions.

In the era of the Internet where thousands and thousands of digital images reside of today’s wars, the gatekeepers that contributed to the creation of an iconic image no longer exist.  Life magazine no longer exists and the 24-hour news cycle broadcasts such a profuse amount of footage from the conflicts around the world, that it is questionable if current photographers are even capable of creating an iconic image.  When a photograph is published as a lead photo on a leading news Web site, it is replaced within hours.  It would be interesting to look back at today’s wars in 10 to 15 years and conduct a similar study to this one in order to determine if any images grew to iconic status in the eyes of the general public, and if these photographs contributed to collective memory.

The iconic photos from Vietnam still exist today as conversation starters, or as a historical lesson, but because the details have faded away from the collective memory over time, the photos rarely exist today as their initial intended purpose, as documentation of the event that the photographer saw through his viewfinder.

[1] Hariman and Lucaites, “Dissent,” 4-31.
[2] Perlmutter, Photojournalism, 9-11.
[3] Perlmutter, Photojournalism, 10.
[4] Perlmutter, Photojournalism, 11-20.
[5] Hariman and Lucaites, “Dissent,” 4-31.
[6] Fuyuan Shen, “Effects of News Frames and Schemas on Individual’s Issue Interpretations and Attitudes,” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 81, no. 2 (2004); 400-416.
[7] Shen, “Effects of News Frames,” 402.
[8] Go to Appendix D for a visual of the development of the grounded theory.


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