Kenny Irby discusses photographing conflict as part of The Ringling's Witness to War exhibition

Kenny Irby discusses photographing conflict as part of The Ringling's Witness to War exhibition

Posted on June 11, 2013 by Ann Wykell

Kenny Irby’s presentation at The Ringling began with the idea of witnessing. He spoke about the museum's two exhibits of documentary photography from WWII that are part of The Patterson Foundation's Legacy of Valor campaign to honor veterans and their families throughout the next year.

Kenny's presentation included images from The Ringling's Witness to War exhibit and stirred up some lively discussion with the audience when he talked about the photojournalist as witness, the obligation to tell the truth, and to do the least harm, in the situation which is being recorded.

Kenny showed how a photograph taken to record a moment in time can be viewed very differently years later. The example of the iconic Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima, which is in The Ringling's Witness to War exhibition but not in Patriot Plaza's art plan, exemplified this complexity. It is not well known that the famous image was actually the third version shot by photographer Joe Rosenthal.

In the first image, original version, taken of the actual flag raising, the flag was smaller. It was an extraordinary moment during the talk at the Historic Asolo Theater, when a member of the audience told us that he was there, as a marine at Iwo Jima. He witnessed the commander ordering a bigger flag to be brought from a nearby ship and the scene to be re-enacted to achieve a more impressive composition. It is a version with the bigger flag that has become one of the most recognized and significant images of American military history.

Which photograph told the truth?

Kenny explained that each one was a moment of truth – and that context in the form of captions or other information, was needed for viewers to understand what the photographer was recording. Sometimes a photographic image transcends its time and place. It communicates powerfully without the information of who, what where, why or how – the tenets of journalism. It may take on a new meaning through time, becoming iconic representations of important ideas – as with the Iwo Jima flag image.

These images are experienced as art – like great paintings and sculpture. The meaning viewers of later generations attach to these works does not depend on knowing all the facts. The image speaks to us directly and we speak back in our thoughts and feelings about it.

Kenny Irby pointed out that in selecting the images for Patriot Plaza we have searched for those “great pictures” that also have important stories to tell.

About Kenny Irbe

Kenny Irby is Senior Faculty, Visual Journalism/Diversity at the Poynter Institute. The founder of Poynter's photojournalism program, he teaches and consults in photojournalism, leadership, ethics and diversity throughout the United States and internationally. Irby was a photographer and deputy director of photography for Newsday, Inc. where he was photo editor for three Pulitzer Prize projects. He is co-curator of the planned Witness to Mission installation at Patriot Plaza.

About Legacy of Valor

Legacy of Valor is a campaign that rallies our community to honor veterans, inspire patriotism and pass freedom on to others. A mosaic of community-driven partnerships will educate and focus the community to use time, talent and treasure to recognize the service and sacrifice of all veterans and their families. For more information, please visit

  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


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