Technology, certainly, has affected our ability and desire to understand world events. Consider two of the photographs I discussed during my Vietnam presentation: one of Kim Phuk, the "napalm girl," running naked from her North Vietnamese village, which was taken by New York Times photographer Nick Ut; and another of the South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner, which won Eddie Adams the Pulitzer Prize.
Ut's photograph was credited with launching the anti-war sentiment in America, and led Nixon to question its authenticity. Adam's photo, along with increasing the American anti-war sentiment, ruined Loan's life -- the general was villainized in American and South Vietnamese newspapers. When Loan, fifteen years after the fall of Saigon, moved to Virginia to open a pizza parlor, a few of his patrons soon discovered that he was the one from that famous photograph. Loan found the words WE KNOW WHO YOU ARE spray-painted on the bathroom wall one night while he was cleaning, and soon after business dropped off and the parlor was closed down.
The power of a single image is astonishing. Or in my father's case, a series of images -- in 1958, when he was only sixteen, Life magazine ran a series story called "Crisis in Education." Two sixteen-year-old boys peer out from the cover of the series’ first issue. Above their juxtaposed photographs, in red letters against a black background, it reads: "Exclusive pictures of a Russian schoolboy versus his US counterpart." The Russian, Alexei Kutzkov, purses his lips beneath a soot-streak moustache. His shoulders disappear into an armor of fur. A black shapka sits pushed back from his squinted eyes, which in any language appear to ask, "What the hell are you looking at?"
The American opposite him, however, is easy-smiling, each tooth standing straighter than a post in a white picket fence. His Flat-Top with Fenders haircut lay perfectly coifed, James Dean leather jacket half-zipped over a wool sweater. The caption identifies him as Stephen Lapekas of Chicago, Illinois. He is a vestige of Life’s long (and ultimately losing) battle with television and changing tastes, the poster boy for everything that was once wrong with America. He is a faded reflection of myself at sixteen. He is my father -- and after this magazine hit newsstands in 1958, he was instantly famous. For one week in February of that year, a Life photographer and journalist had followed him around the halls and classrooms of Austin High -- snapping pictures, asking questions, never mentioning what the article would look like when finally published.
And when my father finally read the article, he understood why.
“Stephen Lapekas of Chicago,” it begins, “starts out every school day by meeting his high school steady, Penny Donahue, and heading for Austin High. Ten minutes later he gets to Typing II class, slips behind a large electric typewriter and another pleasant school day begins.” A photograph of my father adjusting the tabulator, staring at the Underwood as if at a lab specimen: “I type about a word a minute,” he jokes in the box beneath. On the next page is a shot of my dad walking back from a blackboard graffitied with mislabeled angles and shapes, biting his lip to keep from laughing: “Stephen amuses the class with his ineptitude,” the caption says.
Alexei’s pictures fill nearly the rest of the five-page article, and in only one of them is he laughing: “When not reading Tolstoy or Chekov, Alexei can be found playing fervent games of chess with classmates,” reads one caption. In the photograph overhead he is seated across from Oleg Koryokavsky, a schoolmate, chuckling because the game is almost over and as the last line of the caption reveals, “Alexei won.”
On the third page of the article, “Alexei labors with keen concentration upon a Gaz truck in shop class. Though he is college applicant, he must still take vocational courses because they are in curriculum.” His classmates clamber around him, friends of his or the camera?
On the next page my father stands at the head of his English class, under fifty stars and thirteen stripes, reading aloud from Great Expectations. His finger follows the words while a girl seated at the back peruses the pages of Modern Romances, which she has tucked tightly inside her notebook.
On another page my father can be found dancing with Penny, his high school girlfriend. “After-school theatrics,” proclaims the caption under this page-sized picture, “occupies Stephen Lapekas who, with Penny Donahue (right), dances Rockin’ Cha at the YMCA. Stephen spent four hours a week for two months rehearsing the YMCA centennial.”
And on the page directly beside this one, “After school study brings Alexei Kutzkov to the curtained silence of his home. Alexei, who seldom has a date, spends three to four hours a night on homework.” Alexei, alone, a silhouette hunched over his desktop. Dancing with famous names and dates and numbers in the dark.
Looking back, now fifty years later, my father understands that the Life article is purely propaganda. "A product of the time," he calls it -- and he's right: that article was published five months after the launch of Sputnik. America was terrified, and we needed a place to point our fingers. My father became that place (that face) only by accident, and a half-century later he is still embarrassed about it.
So as much as technology (photography, specifically) has affected our ability to understand world events, it has conversely affected our ability to misunderstand them. If anyone at the time had bothered to research the events behind Eddie Adam's photo, he would have found that Loan, a highly decorated general, was simply doing his job. The same is true for my father. His family and friends knew that he was, despite being a c-student, intelligent, motivated, and diligent, but the country's perception of him, based on only a handful of the two-thousand photographs taken over the course of that week, was quite the opposite.