It’s no cliché. She means it. She lives it. You can tell.
Those aren’t mindless doodles scribbled with a ballpoint pen on the back of her notebook. No “Debbie + Jack” or “Rolling Stones rock!” It’s real, raw, intense.
Who is she?
I’ve stared at this photograph for what seems like hours since the death last week of revered photographer Ken Elkins, whose artistry graced the pages of The Anniston Star for three decades. Choosing a favorite Ken Elkins picture is like selecting your favorite $100 bill; it’s not fair.
This one, though, is mine.
Little do I know about it. Our records are slim. Where was it taken? When was it taken? What happened to this young soldier? His uniform says “U.S. Army,” so was he shipped overseas? Did he see combat? If so, did he survive? Did this young couple get married? Did they have children?
Where are they today?
Yet, this photograph says so much — about war, about young people, about hope, about the unknown, about love, about America — that it deserves a place alongside the iconic images of Robert Capa and Joe Rosenthal and Eddie Adams, wartime photographers with few equals. That’s not hyperbole or overblown local boosterism. That’s fact.
Though it has no names or dates, this single image offers a quintessential view of America’s turbulent times that enveloped us during the ’60s and ’70s. This photo, and this young couple, shows who we were, how we lived, and the emotions we felt.
On the middle finger of the girl’s left hand is the soldier’s school ring.
A half-smoked cigarette is in the soldier’s right hand.
His watch is covered by his uniform sleeve.
He wears no discernible rank.
Both hands rest on the barrel of his gun.
She holds tight to his arm, her head resting poignantly on his shoulder.
His face seems blank, though not catatonic or expressionless.
Her face is solemn, the human focus of the entire image.
And her notebook.
Its “Love & Peace” message is front and center. The “o” in love is a peace symbol. Another large peace symbol is drawn at the top. And in the upper right corner is a short phrase that’s unreadable unless you use the power of Photoshop to enlarge it several times over.
“Get Out Of Cambodia!”
I have no idea if this girl’s boyfriend was bound for Southeast Asia. There’s no way to know. Nevertheless, the Vietnam War lasted two decades and involved numerous countries, including ours; more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers died. And President Nixon’s decision to bomb military targets in previously neutral Cambodia in 1969 was one of the war’s most pivotal and controversial moments. It’s too easy to say without Cambodia there would be no Kent State, but the timeline is nonetheless hard to discount.
The assumption is that this soldier was shipping off to somewhere: for training stateside or overseas combat; that the photograph was taken in the early 1970s; and that this teenage girl was reeling in her irrepressible emotions caused by the thought of her boyfriend being sent to a far-off land to fight a war that she clearly did not support.
“Love & Peace.”
“Get Out Of Cambodia!”
The splendor of Ken Elkins’ photographs rests in their ability to take us places: into people’s hearts, into their homes, into their minds. I refuse to believe Ken snapped a few frames of this young couple and merely lucked into an image that said more than could a thousand words. Of course, only Ken could prove me wrong.
To stare at this image is to feel this young woman’s despair, to understand her fear for her boyfriend’s safety, to imagine the thoughts running through a young soldier’s mind. It makes you wonder: Did this couple ever see each other again?
Ken’s brilliance gave us this couple’s unfinished story. Perhaps that’s how we should leave it.
Phillip Tutor — email@example.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.