Photographing the Flag

Harriet Earle

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag examines the history and development of representing war in photographs. Returning to the earliest images of conflict, she writes: ‘Not to be pained by these pictures, not to recoil from them, not to strive to abolish what caused this havoc, this carnage – these would be the reactions of a moral monster’ (2003: 7). Her point is salient. To be able to view images of atrocity without a shudder suggests moral deficiency. However, Sontag goes on to say that:

Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen (2003:11-12).


9/11 has become an epoch-defining event in American history; the flag is firmly connected to it.

[Image by Backdoor Survival under a CC BY NC license]

Over one hundred years of photography and cinematography has led to a saturation of images. This is not to say that we are completely nonchalant in regards to images of conflict and atrocity. Rather, much depends on our relationship to the event. It is easier for us to feel blasé and to ignore these images when we feel safe and unthreatened: ‘It’s normal; it’s human’. When the image shows something that affects us and jeopardises our sense of safety then it is much harder to switch off. The shock of the image itself, coupled with what it means for us and our situation, mimics the initial shock of a traumatic rupture but this is not to say that the viewing of such an image immediately traumatises the viewer. Rather, the photograph is a record of a moment in which an event with the power to traumatise occurred. In viewing the photograph, we are viewing a representation of the traumatic event, but with the knowledge that it is just that – a representation. The event poses no danger to us – let us recall Freud’s suggestion that trauma arises when one faces an experience of potential death and then must come to terms with the absurdity of one’s survival – but is still able to shock and disturb us (see Freud: Moses and Monotheism, p34). A photograph may disturb our sleep or shake our sense of safety but it will not lead to the depth of response seen in survivors of a traumatic event. What photographs do in this instance is capture an event, a person, a place and crystallise it into a single, consumable image. Simone Weil attests that violence turns anyone subjected to it into a ‘thing’ – photography does the same (2003: 2).

It is in part due to photography’s ability to crystallise that certain images of conflicts become ‘the image’ of that event. However, this is not a simple case of picking the ‘best’ photograph. Sontag writes:

Photographs that everyone recognises are now a constituent part of what a society chooses to think about, or declares that it has chosen to think about. It calls these ideas ‘memories’ […] What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened, with the pictures that lock the story in our minds (2003: 76-77).

The locked-in picture becomes a stand-alone representation of the event.

This article considers two famous conflict photographs –  Joe Rosenthal’s ‘Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima‘ and Thomas Franklin’s ‘Ground Zero Spirit‘ – and how they are used in two of the volumes of comics produced to raise money for 9/11 charities: Marvel’s Heroes (2002) and Dark Horse’s 9/11: Artists Respond (2002). Both of these photographs have become emblematic of the event they depict and the images have become so famous that they are presented without caption. They have taken on a significance that has gone beyond the original scope of the image. This is especially true of the Rosenthal photograph, which is used in the comics discussed here, not in relation to the event it captures originally (World War II in the pacific theatre), but in relation to a very different event (the attack on the WTC). This alone speaks to the importance and cultural value of this photograph.


Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of the flag on Iwo Jima is one of the most recognisable and parodied photographs of all time.

[Image by Brian Rinker under a CC BY NC licence]

The image of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima is one of the most iconic images of the 20th Century. It has been mimicked and copied countless times. Indeed, the image is so well-known most could name it from coarse outlines of its unique shape. This is a photograph that is firmly grounded in American culture. It speaks to many as an icon of the bravery of the American Armed Forces. Yet, this photograph is not what it seems. It is entirely staged, a recreation of a morning flag-raising ceremony, redone later in the day with a larger flag by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal. Does this knowledge alter the power of the image? That this did not happen exactly as the photograph says does not diminish the importance of how it happened. Regardless of the ‘truth’ of the situation, Rosenthal’s photograph has become a myth, in the Barthesian sense, of the bravery and valour of the American military, even if we concede that these men did display great bravery on Iwo Jima. However, learning that this photograph was not a candid shot leads us to question the nature of photographic integrity. If we further consider that many of the most famous photographs of conflict were in some way staged or misappropriated, should they cease to be seen as canonical representations of conflict situations? This is for the viewer to decide, though it is important to add that very few photographs of conflict were completely un-posed prior to the Vietnam War, which marked the beginning of the war photographer as a ‘hands-off’ observer. Indeed, many of the key photographs of Vietnam could not have been posed at all – consider Huynh Cong ‘Nick’ Ut’s  photograph of children, burned by Napalm, running naked down the street.

It would not be accurate to call this a photograph of an atrocity. Though it is undoubtedly an icon of war, it speaks more of valour and victory than death and devastation. Sontag would suggest that this is due to Rosenthal’s being part of a contingent of photographers who sought to depict war in order to boost morale and support, as was not uncommon for photographers operating before the 1960s – another example of political Barthesian myth-making. Similarly, the viewer of this image is unlikely to experience any sense of shock. In the first image, by Doug Wheatley and taken from Marvel’s Heroes, the triangular shape of the original image is mimicked perfectly, but rather than the men just holding up the flag they are also pulling a wounded body from the debris underneath them – the heroism is increased tenfold (2001: 26). The artwork is monochrome and heavily shaded, save for a plume of white smoke that sits above the firemen’s heads like a halo. In contrast to the sketched appearance of the rest of the image, the flag is drawn with clean lines and clear definition, making it stand out of the image and acting as an immediate focal point for the viewer’s eye.

Iwo Jima-min-min

When the fight is on American soil it is not attack that is important, but defence and protection.

[Image used under fair dealings provisions]

Ramos and Delgado’s rendering of the same photograph in Heroes, portrays the flag-raising differently (2002: 38). Rather than being the sole focus of the image, the flag-raising men are placed in the background. The rest of the double-page bleed shows chaos and destruction underneath a dust-filled sky. The people in the foreground are drawn with heavier definition of lines than those in the background, who are barely distinguishable as individuals. However, the eye is drawn to the background because of the large bright flag that is waving. The low colour intensity of the rest of the image allows the brightness of the flag to become more visible. As with Wheatley’s image, the flag itself seems very large for the overall size of the frame, drawing the eye even more. Ramos and Delgado’s image gives another reminder of the original photograph from which it draws its inspiration. In the centre of the frame, under a drooping lamppost, a fireman is standing with his back to the viewer, taking a photograph of the raising of the flag. The inclusion of this photographer reminds us, not only of the artist’s inspiration, but also of the expectation of photographic renderings of such events and the seeming ubiquity of those willing to capture them.

Artistic differences aside, in replacing soldiers with firemen, we are being presented with two possible ways of reading the image: either we are asked to make the connection between the heroism and patriotism displayed at Iwo Jima and at Ground Zero or, alternatively, the artist is drawing (ironic) attention to the differences of each situation – the events at Ground Zero could most certainly not be considered a victory. The appropriation suggests that conflict has moved from the far-flung corners of the world, Ground Zero has become the new battlefield and the soldiers are replaced by firemen. When the fight is on American soil it is not attack that is important, but defence and protection. The fame of the appropriated image allows it to stand without explanation within the text. It is an icon which requires no caption.

Ground Zero Spirit-min-min

What gives the image ‘Raising of the Flag at Ground Zero’ its power is the representation of hope and perseverance, not of trauma and unquenchable horror.

[Images used under fair dealings provisions]

One of the most famous photographs of the flag at Ground Zero is Thomas E Franklin’s ‘Raising the Flag at Ground Zero’. It has been likened to Rosenthal’s photo, due to it representing the raising of the flag in a place of conflict. However, the two photographs are loaded with distinctly different meanings. The photograph of Iwo Jima is, as I have previously mentioned, one of bravery and strength in victory. Franklin’s photograph speaks, too, of bravery but of a different sort. This is not the bravery of a soldier on the battlefield because, unlike the soldier, these men did not realise until the event was upon them that they were soldiers or that Ground Zero was a battlefield. The photograph speaks further of the need for ritual and the importance of icons in times of national crisis. Franklin’s photograph became an iconic image of firemen at Ground Zero. But, like Rosenthal’s photograph, it does not engender in us a traumatic response – a mimetic reaction of abject trauma as if we had experienced the event ourselves – but rather a far more ‘normal’ reaction – one of shock, perhaps, or sadness. We are not accosted with an image of great horror, merely three men and a pile of rubble. Unlike many images of conflict, the actual content of this photograph is unremarkable. What gives it its power is the knowledge of what it is representing; this is a photograph of hope and perseverance, not of trauma and unquenchable horror. The representation of it in the comics world is testament to the influence of this image and its popularity within the national and international press.


Nick Ut’s photograph ‘Napalm Girl’ is a central example of spontaneous conflict photo-journalism and has become one of the defining images of the Vietnam War.

[Image by Nick Ut used under fair dealings provisions]

There are three distinct representations of this photograph in these comics, allowing for differences in artistic style. The shape of the image – the position of the figures in relation to each other and in relation to the flag – is unchanged from the original. There are several possible reasons for this but the most convincing is related to the photograph’s age. This is a very recent photograph. Though it has had a wide audience, it does not yet have the same iconic status as Rosenthal’s image. This is not to say that this photograph is any less important as a representation of the flag at a site of conflict, just that it is too young to hold a comparable position to one of the most well-known icons of America in conflict. That the artists have preserved the image unchanged suggests that it is not yet recognisable enough to be appropriated in the same way as ‘Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima’. Alternatively, to take a far more simplistic view, the photograph displays brave firemen at Ground Zero. One key difference between the two images is that Franklin’s photograph is not staged. It was shot with a telephoto lens from a pedestrian walkway some 150 yards away.

Both Adams’ and Nelson’s rendering are, like the reinterpretations of the Rosenthal photograph, muted in colour, save for the flag, which is both bold and crisp so as to draw the reader’s eye directly to it. Both of these images are presented silently; the artists feel there is no need to add caption or dialogue. It is for the reader to decide whether this is effective. Despite its lack of colour, Orsak’s image is striking as the foreground of the frame is uncluttered, making the figures stand out clearly. Though this version is not silent, the inclusion of the caption does not detract from the image.

As with Rosenthal’s photograph, this is not a photograph of an atrocity. Though we may baulk at the sight of the rubble, the image itself shows an act of ritual and national pride. The original title of the photograph, ‘Ground Zero Spirit’, suggests that we are supposed to see the flag as a mark of the strength of American spirit. It is only because we know why there is rubble and why the firemen are there that this image becomes a representation of a traumatic event – the amount of rubble alone confirms the scope of the destruction. In this respect, it is our prior knowledge that gives the image its traumatic aspect.

CITATION: Harriet Earle, “Photographing the Flag,” Alluvium, Vol. 4, No. 5 (2015): n.pag. Web. 30 October 2015,

Dr Harriet Earle is an Associate Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck, University of London. She recently completed her PhD in American Comics at Keele University and is currently preparing her first monograph on the topic of comics and and conflict trauma for the University Press of Mississippi. Her publications are spread across the field of comics, popular culture studies and contemporary American literature. Harriet is Articles Editor for Alluvium.

Twitter: @comicbomb  Website:

Works Cited:

Freud, Sigmund. (2001) Moses and Monotheism. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol XXIII. Ed. James Strachey. London: Vintage.

Sontag, Susan. (2004a) Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Penguin. 

Various. (2002) 9/11: Artists Respond. Milwaukee: Dark Horse Comics.

Various. (2002) Heroes: The World’s Greatest Super Hero Creators Honor The World’s Greatest Heroes 9-11-2001. New York: Marvel.

Weil, Simone and James P. Holoka. (2003) The Iliad, Or, The Poem of Force: A Critical Edition. New York: P. Lang.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.