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Seeing ‘95 Through Eyes of News Photographers

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some photographs are whimsical, such as Barbara Kinney’s shot of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Egypt’s President Mubarak, King Hussein of Jordan and President Clinton all straightening their ties in unison, preparing to sign an accord expanding Palestinian self-rule on the West Bank (PLO leader Yasser Arafat is also at the White House, but looking at a loss--he was not wearing a tie). Some are science lessons, such as France’s Patrick Landmann’s series featuring scientists using the latest techniques to extract data from a 3,500-year-old mummy.

And some photographs carry messages of hope, such as a new photo of Phan Ti Kim Phuc. Kim Phuc is the young girl who was captured on film as she ran naked and screaming down a Vietnam road after a napalm attack--that photo won the World Press Photo Award of the Year in 1972, and some credit for hastening the end of the Vietnam War. Twenty-three years later, Kim Phuc’s arms and shoulders bear many scars from her burns, but she wears a peaceful smile as she cuddles her clear-skinned infant son.

But “Eyewitness 1996,” an exhibition of the best photographs from the 39th international World Press Photo competition currently on display at West Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance, headquarters of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, is dominated by darker images: the aftermath of the bomb explosion at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building; violence and suffering in Chechnya, Rwanda, Bosnia, America’s inner cities.

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The more than 175 black-and-white and color photos are culled from 30,000 entries from freelance photographers, newspapers, magazines and press agencies from around the world, all shot in 1995. The only exception is the 1972 photo of Kim Phuc, displayed alongside the new photo. The 1972 photo was taken by AP photographer Nick Ut, a Monterey Park resident.

Unfortunately, Ut said, AP would not release him from O.J. Simpson trial duty here, so another photographer, Joe McNally, was the first to photograph Kim Phuc and her baby, for Life magazine. But Ut was reunited with Kim Phuc when she came to Los Angeles last Friday to see the exhibition. Now a Toronto resident, Kim Phuc was followed by a Canadian film crew making a documentary on her life. “Vietnam was a great tragedy, but she is lucky, I am very happy for her,” said Ut, who also visited the museum last Friday.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the center, said the exhibition is perfectly in keeping with the mission of the center, an international Jewish human rights organization dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust and challenging bigotry and racism. The museum is the center’s educational arm housing permanent and changing exhibits.

“The reason the museum is sponsoring a photo exhibition of this kind is that it gives you a snapshot of our world, and it is a world not yet free of hatred,” Hier said. “Hatred didn’t die with Hitler, and it dominates our world. Here we are in 1996, and most of the images that we are familiar with, that newspapers want us to remember, are images that reflect evil.”

The Museum of Tolerance often hosts visiting school groups, and Hier says that some of the photos may be too graphic for young children. But, for those considered old enough (in this case, he suggests, junior high and high school, rather than elementary school kids), he refuses to edit out the more disturbing photos.

“It’s like the old debate of what is appropriate at a funeral,” Hier said. “In the Jewish rite of burial, there is a very big debate between the Orthodox way, and the non-Orthodox way. The Orthodox way is, when people die, the custom is to ask friends to participate in shoveling the dirt and stones onto the coffin. Many people don’t like that; they think it’s cruel, they don’t like the sound of the dirt and sand hitting the coffin, they think it’s inconsiderate of the family--why make it more difficult than it already is?

“Many times, you go to a [non-Orthodox] funeral and the cemetery looks like a golf course! They don’t allow the stones and the sand to be seen, nor do they allow the shoveling. They finish the funeral, and then let the grave-diggers come in and do their job, out of the presence of friends. The only bad thing about that is, they are attending a funeral, they are not going to a golf tournament. And when you come to the Museum of Tolerance, and you are hearing the story of man’s inhumanity to man. It’s not a pretty story.”

In contrast to the carnage depicted in many exhibition photographs, the 1996 World Press Photo of the Year is a quiet photo of a boy looking out the back window of a bus. But this photo too, by Washington Post photographer Lucian Perkins, suggests loss and violence. Last May, Perkins spent a week in Chechnya, covering the results of war.

“That was my first trip to Chechnya; I’d covered war before, but never seen a country as devastated as Chechnya,” said Perkins in a telephone interview. “The photo was taken on my last day in Chechnya; we were down south of Grozny, where the Russians were moving in to fight the Chechens in the villages and hillsides where they were hiding.

“On our way back from that, we turned onto a road, and as we turned onto it, this bus was right in front of us, maybe 20 yards in front of us. The sun was setting, so the sun was just sort of hitting this child. . . . It just emotionally hit me when I saw this child, because you could see in his eyes what I saw in my last week in Chechnya.

“I was sort of dumbfounded at first, and then I stuck my head out the window and took some photographs. We were moving so fast and it was so bumpy, I didn’t really know that I had [on film] the image that I saw.”

And, like Kim Phuc’s first photographer, Perkins hopes one day to reunite with his subject. “I thought, if I go back to Chechnya, I’d love to take the photograph, just to see if anybody knows who the child is, or where he is, or what happened.”

* “Eyewitness 1996,” Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. Museum hours 10 a.m.-4 p.m. (last entry), Mondays-Thursdays; 10 a.m.-1 p.m. (last entry), Fridays; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (last entry), Sundays; closed Saturdays. Ends Nov. 17. Adults $8; seniors $6; students $5; children under 10 $3. (310) 553-8403.


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