The Digital Journalist
A Face in the Crowd
March 2004

by Leif Skoogfors

"The Pictures Worth a Thousand Slurs."  That's the headline the Dallas Morning News used to describe two photographs that surfaced recently, supposedly showing John Kerry attending an anti-Vietnam war rally along with Jane Fonda thirty years ago. I know one of those images was real -- I took it.

On February 10th I was checking my e-mail in a cyber cafe in Malmo Sweden. The room was filled with cigarette smoke and the peaceful Swedes had computers going at full blast as they electronically slaughtered each other while war gaming. I had a hacking cough. The election in the US was far from my mind.   One e-mail popped out, "Did you know one of your pictures of Jane Fonda and John Kerry is all over the Internet?"


I ran Google, and up came a number of hits. It was my picture, one I had taken 33 years ago. It was Jane Fonda at an anti-war rally in Valley Forge, PA.  Sitting some 20 feet behind her and very out of focus was the just recognizable face of John Kerry. The captions described this rally, organized by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, in terms that made the sacking of Rome by the barbarians seem like a Sunday School picnic.

My editor at Corbis looked into the licensing history and two legitimate sales came up in the seven years it had been with Corbis.  My photo had been pirated and sprinkled across anti-Kerry sites. But why? Kerry had never hidden his role in the anti-war movement. He was one of the most credible activists of the time, but in 1970 he was not even listed as a speaker in The New York Times report of that day. To me, he was just a face in the crowd. 

The original e-mail I had received asked if I had any other pictures of Kerry and Fonda. If I did, I should release them, because it would be a big story. And, if I had more pictures, this unknown contact would be happy to use his media contacts to get them published.

Two days later, 20 sales of this now "controversial" picture had been made to the major media. Corbis kept up with the demand from around the world and I just lost count. My mysterious friend had e-mailed links to the photograph on Corbis's site to all the major media, and at any scent of controversy they bit. 

Now the picture was the news. The event itself was long over. Deserters and draft resistors had been forgiven and returned to the US.  Lt. William Calley, convicted of killing 22 men, women, and children at Mai Ley in 1968 had served his time and been pardoned. But with a presidential campaign underway, my photograph was being used to create news and to form a new "Axis of Evil" linking John Kerry and Jane Fonda.  

A face in the crowd had become news. The New York Times gave Ted Sampley, a ardent anti-Kerry vet who runs a web site that originally ran the Fonda/Kerry picture, several inches of space to cudgel the candidate.  

To their credit, the Times did run Senator John McCain's comments on Sampley a few days later. McCain, also a Vietnam Vet, former POW, and currently campaigning for George Bush said of Sampley,  "He is dishonorable, an enemy of the truth, and despite his claims, he does not speak for or represent the views of all but a few veterans."  

A few days later, a doctored photo was widely published showing Kerry right next to Fonda. Two photographs, taken a year apart by Ken Light and Owen Franken, were pasted together and distributed as an old AP release. They too had been lifted from Corbis. It was quickly identified as a fake. Corbis' legal team was working hard at tracking down both the pirates and the forgers.  

In one of the last e-mails from my unknown friend who was eager to push my picture, he said that he and a few friends had just spotted it while running through Corbis' site. I guess that now that Seinfeld is in reruns, some people have turned to cruising picture archives for fun, and just maybe running into another face in the crowd.  

I did go back to look at the pictures of the event. Kerry never showed up again. But, as I looked over photographs, the rally itself came back to mind. I remember Donald Sutherland's moving reading of Dalton Trumbo's "Johnny Got His Gun" and the veterans from WWII who were there to counter protest. There had been some angry shouts from those vets who supported the war, but as I looked at my contact sheets I saw one picture, a shirtless anti-war Vietnam vet going up to the pro-war group and putting out his hand.  The two opposing vets shook hands that summer day. On my notes, scribbled on the back of the contact sheet, was a comment from the leader of the pro-war vets; "Yes, they have the right to protest. They have been there."

Since that day, when two opposing veterans shook hands, my e-mail "friend" has disagreed with my attempts to put that day in perspective. I am, in some Internet circles, described as attempting a new "Jihad" against the US. I have become a traitor. It is difficult to believe that after all that time, the war is not over. There may be peace in Vietnam, but for a few, hatred still burns with intensity.  And, for now at least, I have been drawn back into it.

© Leif Skoogfors

Leif Skoogfors enlisted in the army in 1958 and missed Vietnam. He has taught photography, covered the White House for Gamma, and photographed conflicts in many parts of the world for Time, Newsweek, and many other publications.