Research Questions

RQ1: Can iconic photos of the Vietnam War era be identified by the general public?

According to Perlmutter, who defined an “icon of outrage,” an iconic photo is not commonly identified by the general population.  However, this conclusion was based only on an informal survey Perlmutter conducted with his college students.[1] When Perlmutter described a historical event, and asked his student to describe or draw a famous photograph, the results were vague descriptions or answers drawn from Hollywood movies.  When he reversed the experiment, showing the students the photos and asking them to describe the event in history, most students could give vague descriptions of the period in history, but very few could provide a detailed description of the context or circumstances of the photo.  Perlmutter concluded that photographs of events that his students experienced through the media during adolescence or early adulthood (the Gulf War photographs in his study) were more likely to resonate with the students, which is consistent with collective memory studies.[2] He determined that iconic photos do not translate across generations.  The purpose of this research question was to determine through in-depth interviews if members of the general public, who were alive during the war era, could identify iconic photos of the Vietnam War, and to what degree.

RQ2: Which qualities of an iconic photo resonate with the general public?

The interview subjects were asked what qualities make the photos memorable to determine if the general public is able to recognize the same qualities of an iconic photo that scholars have identified.  Perlmutter defined many qualities of an iconic image; including celebrity (a famous image that people can identify when prompted), prominence (how prominent a photo’s appearance is in the media), frequency (how often a photo appears in the media, measured quantitatively), profit (the icon’s value as a commodity), instantaneousness (how quickly an image achieves fame), transposability (reuse across multiple media outlets), fame of subjects (recognizability or notoriety of the photo’s subjects), importance of event (when an icon is tied to a significant social or historical event), metonymy (when a photo of a single event is used to exemplify general conditions), primordially and/or cultural resonance (when an icon alludes to a biblical or classical historical scene), and striking composition (when a photo contains superior compositional or visual elements or depicts “the decisive moment”).  [AL1] The purpose of this portion of the study is to determine how the public sees a photograph that is considered iconic as opposed to how scholars and photographers view the same photographs.

RQ3: How do iconic photographs contribute to the collective memory of the Vietnam War era?

This study examined how iconic images of the Vietnam War era influenced collective memory and triggered emotions and memories in people as they were confronted with the images.  According to Hariman and Lucaites, Filo’s Kent State photo is iconic because it is not only a record of the event, but also engages the viewer’s emotions and raises questions of policy, influencing not only the collective memory of the era, but also the future possibilities for civic action.[3] Throughout their interviews, participants used oral history to express their memories of the Vietnam War era.  This study examined the relationship between their memory and the historical context of the photo.  By studying what respondents chose to speak about when viewing the photos, we can gain a greater understanding of how the collective memory of the Vietnam War is constructed.


[1] Perlmutter, Photojouranlism and Foreign Policy, 10.
[2] Howard Schuman, Robert F. Belli, and Katherine Bischoping, “The Generational Basis of Historical Knowledge,” in Collective Memory of Political Events: Social Psychological Processes, ed. James W. Pennebaker, Dario Paez, and Bernard Rimé (Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum , 1997): 44-77.
[3] Hariman and Lucaites, No Caption Needed, 147-8.


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