Rev. Arts HN: A Thousand Wrong Words

“V-J Day In Times Square” photographed by Alfred Eisenstaedt. August 14th, 1945

Some say that “a picture can speak a thousand words,” but what if they’re the wrong words? One of the most well-known photos that captures the excitement of America after the Japanese surrender — marking the end of World War II — is “V-J Day in Times Square.” Captured by Alfred Eisenstaedt on August 14th, 1945, the photo portrays an American sailor kissing a woman in a white dress. At first glance, “V-J Day in Times Square” appears to be a snapshot capturing the love between a man and a woman filled with relief and joy that the war is over, and they will not have to return to the battlefields over sea. But, after further examination, it turns out that “V-J Day in Times Square” is the exact opposite of the post-war/pre-baby boom romanticism that is placed on it. In fact, it could actually be considered another horrifying photo from war, due to the fact that the two people involved weren’t lovers, but strangers, and consent for the kiss (or publication) was not given.

There’s some backstory to what happened before the famous photo was taken. George Mendonça, the sailor in the photo, was actually on a date at Radio City Music Hall with his then-girlfriend (now-wife) Rita, enjoying the show and some drinks. Until the program was interrupted with a message informing the audience that Japan had surrendered, and the war was over. The couple ran out to Times Square to celebrate, and an under-the-influence Mendonça ran up to a woman in a white dress that he thought was a nurse and planted one right on her lips, which is when Eisenstaedt snapped four photos, where Rita is even visible in the background of one of them.

Second, the woman in the photo, Greta Friedman, clearly did not give consent for Mendonça to engage in a kiss with her. This is visible in the photo: Mendonça’s fist is clenched, he’s holding Friedman in a way that resembles a headlock, Friedman’s stance is off centered; she’s not embracing her “lover,” but rather, trying to pull away. Flash-forward to the present-day world. Looking at some very broad issues that litter the headlines, consent, rape, and human rights are just a couple that come to mind. Why are we still celebrating and praising a photo that was set up because of the lack of consent and drunken choices?

Another fault of the photo is that it Eisenstaedt did not follow the basic rules of photojournalism with the publication of this photo in Life magazine. He did not detail any caption in the photo, and since the identities of the two people remained a mystery for so many years, we can be certain that Eisenstaedt didn’t get the okay from Mendonça and Friedman to publish the photo in a major publication.

The lesson that can be learned from the “V-J Day in Times Square” photo is that we shouldn’t take things for their surface value. Looking at the backstory of a photo can change what it says: things like the state that Mendonça found himself in, the lack of consent given by Friedman, and the poor photojournalism exhibited by Eisenstaedt changes the once-was romantic, celebratory, post-war picture to a real-life horror story.

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Author: erikabunk

Raised in Northern Minnesota, Interdisciplinary major in Radio and Business & Entrepreneurship at Columbia College Chicago. Enjoys long runs on the lakefront path at dawn, public radio, and lefse covered in butter w/ cinnamon sugar. Spends too much time on Spotify, in search of the best record store in the world, and dreams of returning to Reykjavík.

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