I just read the obituary of the sailor portrayed by the photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt in his famous picture “V Day” at the BBC News.
I have been thinking about a post about this photograph for a while. I´m sure you all know what I´m talking about: it´s 1945, the japanese have just surrendered, and people is celebrating the victory in the streets. Among them, Eisenstaedt captures a sailor grabbing a nurse and kissing her to celebrate the victory.*
This image has become iconic. Along with the Parisian kiss photographed by Robert Doisneau, this picture stands for passionated love. They are both so widely known that many articles have been written about them, wondering about the identity of the kissers, they have been recreated by amateurs and have been sold as posters and postcards.
However, there is a main difference between both pictures. In Doisneau´s case, it´s been known that this was a staged picture. The man and the women were not two strangers kissing while walking around in Paris, but they were working for Doisneau. Eisenstaedt’s picture, however, is not the result of posing, at least, not a carefully studied pose arranged by the photographer. According to the obituary, the sailor grabbed the nurse so Eisenstaedt “got a clear shot of the nurse”. Then, this picture would be more “natural” than the previous one.
But, is “naturalness” what we demand in a picture? is it even important? One could say that in this case yes, because what we want to see is a real kiss, not a fake one. And even if the two lovers at the Hôtel de Ville seem truly in love, they’re not. However, and that’s the interesting thing for me, neither is the couple in Eisenstaedt´s picture. In this photograph, the sailor is kissing the nurse, not the other way around. They’re not kissing, he is kissing her.
I think it’s very symptomatic of our contemporary views on romantic love that we have totally neglected the fact that this is not a consented kiss. The imaginary this picture uses to arise is that of love and passion, even celebration, not of abuse and street harassment. Why? I think many factors converge here. First, the perfect and beautiful composition of the picture and its iconic character have secured the transmission of the narrative without putting it into question. We’re looking at a great photo in aesthetic terms, and we recognize it so well that we do not need to pay attention to details such as the passive arm of the nurse. Second, and this is much more complicated, women’s bodies in public spaces has been (and unfortunately usually are) perceived as a public property. We may not tolerate unwanted kisses now, but the fact that we don´t see a non-consented kiss in this picture should make us think. How are we thinking about love if this picture can “represent” it? Have these and other images where women’s bodies are used with other purposes shaped our image of love? Can we image this photograph reversing the roles?
*Getty Images holds the copyright of the picture and they made me pay for posting it, so I´m sorry! but just click the link to see it.