WORDS have the capacity to explain, convince and move. But a good photograph can bridge differences of peoples, languages and periods of time. Only a few can unify us in experiencing a singular, profound emotion.
The touching salute
of young JFK
One 1963 black-and-white picture possesses that evocative power -- especially now that a fatal plane crash has killed John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife Carolyn and her sister Lauren Bessette.
It is perhaps the most unforgettable image of JFK Jr.: He is 3 years old and standing in front of both his mother, Jacqueline, dressed in black and wearing a long veil of mourning, and his somber and ill-fated uncle, Robert. John-John is saluting the casket of his assassinated father, President John Kennedy, on Nov. 25, 1963, as the funeral procession passes outside St. Matthews Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
Brian Cannon acknowledges the forcefulness of that picture and knows exactly why it moves us. The 38-year-old assistant professor of communication at Hawaii Pacific University studied it as part of his doctoral dissertation, "Photographs As Icons: Toward a Theory of Iconicity of Still Images in Photojournalism."
The downtown Honolulu resident says the endearing photo speaks well of JFK Jr. and his father, as it commemorates the special relationship and respect between a son and his dad. "The viewer feels sympathy for young Kennedy and is touched by this cute little boy saluting his father during his father's funeral," wrote Cannon. "Therein lies the strong emotional impact of the photograph, and the quality that makes the image memorable."
Cannon adds that the way JFK Jr. was dressed that day -- in a light-colored coat, short pants, white socks and dark shoes -- conveys his "innocence in the face of grief and murder." Also, the angle of the shot (the photographer must have knelt as opposed to standing and focusing downward on the little boy) brings us closer to the child's perspective of the proceedings, certainly one of the saddest and most traumatizing times in this country's history.
ACCORDING to Cannon's dissertation, the photo resonated so much with the American public that it acquired national significance. "It represents an epoch known as the 'Kennedy Era,' and in some sense, the end of the days of 'Camelot' at the White House, a reference to the epilogue written for President Kennedy by Theodore H. White, published in the Dec. 6, 1963 issue of Life magazine," Cannon wrote.
"The epilogue was based on the only interview Jacqueline Kennedy permitted in the days following the president's death. Mrs. Kennedy explained that (her husband) was fond of a line in a musical comedy that went, 'Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.'"
Camelot is no more. John F. Kennedy Jr. has left this Earth. But that unforgettable photo of him saluting his slain father lives on.
Diane Yukihiro Chang's column runs Monday and Friday.
She can be reached by phone at 525-8607, via e-mail at
firstname.lastname@example.org, or by fax at 523-7863.