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Images of 1980s
Speaking of 1980s often people think about Reagan, “Greed is good”, and funny hair styles. Of course the 80s were more than that, but if you asked me what I am thinking about the 1980s it would be a longest “Mhm” followed by “I was not even born yet.” However, images can be a tool for us to study the detail of history. The greatest thing about learning history for a visual person is to look into photos. Each and every photograph has a story to tell. Ever since the technology of modern camera was introduce in the 18 century, people have been using this technique to capture memorable moments.
Photography in the 1980s was personal and political, or a mixture of both. Nevertheless, thanks to the photographers who are there to capture events, the future generation can study them. What happened at the scene of Reagan’s attempted Assassination? How big was the crowed when the Berlin wall fell down at 1989? What did Chernobyl look like after the explosion? I believe those events had already been symbolized. Some say “history always repeats itself.” That is somehow true if we look deeper into every decades. The world still has the same problems that happened before. What is so special about the 1980s is that is a historical turning point. Through several iconic photos of the 1980s the decade can be seen as one plagued with wars, tragic events and political unrest, but it was also a decade where freedom and human rights were advanced.
Afghan Girl, 1985 (See Figure 1)
The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan during 1977-1980 might been seen as a milestone of U.S. history due to the help we have been giving, but due to poor Sharbat Gula and her family it is not an event to be celebrated. In 1985, National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry shot a portrait of a 12 year-old Afghan girl named Sharbat Gula made it to the cover of National Geographic Magazine. However, what people could not see in the photo “Afghan Girl” was the reason that caused Sharbat Gula’s sorrow eyes. From 1979 to 1989, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan armed with Arab resistance launched a war of aggression and counter-aggression. The evening of December 27, the Soviet Union deployed eight divisions, Special Forces, and airborne troops in a brutal military invasion of Afghanistan. In only three and a half hours, they gained “complete military and political control of Kabul and large portions of the country” (Office of Historian)
Until early 1980, 8.5 million troops invaded which gradually increased to 10 million people. There were almost 10 years long of ongoing civil wars, invasions and conflicts in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, little Sharbat Gula was born into this event. After the Soviet invasion of blatant military, the Afghan people in the nation in danger of life and death, the original anti-government revolutionary activity soon developed into a larger anti-Soviet war against the Soviet Union. According to the article “A Life Revealed: Along Afghanistan's War-torn Frontier” by Debra Denker, Sharbat Gula’s village was bombed and invaded by Soviet Union around the early 80s. Unfortunately, Sharbat Gula’s parents were killed by bombing, about 100 people died from war, 600 million people were forced to flee their homes and become refugees. Later, photographer Steve McCurry visited Afghanistan, and was given a “war-torn frontier.” tour. In one of the refugee camps, he captured the hunting face of Sharbat Gula among other similar age girls. Sharbat Gula’s portrait became the symbol of post war fear of the Muslim world (Denker). In 1988, under the auspices of the UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, the Soviet Union, the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan met in in Kabul and their four foreign ministers signed in Geneva a political settlement for Afghanistan. The Soviet troops had to withdraw from Afghanistan within nine months, putting an end of a nine-year occupation (Dibb). Wars and conflicts are a never ending nightmare which is still haunting us today. The look on Sharbat Gula’s face fully expressed that.
The Reagan Assassination Attempt, 1981(See figure 2)
Same time at the early 80s, the most serious incident which happened to President Ronald Wilson Reagan was when he got shot just outside the Washington Hilton Hotel by a young man named John Hinckley Jr. In the photo of the scene right after the shooting, reporters were making roars within the crowed, few officers holding a gun down on the sidewalk, and the president was thrown into the limo car. It was chaotic. The gunman was held immediately after the shooting. This event shocked the entire society for Reagan had only been elected to be a president for ten weeks. President Reagan was heading to the white house unaware that he had been shot. Shortly after he left the scene, he did not realize one of the ricochets punctured his lung until he started coughing up blood. He then was rushed to George Washington University Hospital. The New York Times reported President Reagan remained in good humor even he was fainted due to the blood loss. He told his doctors, “Please tell me you’re Republicans” (Raines). Fortunately, President Reagan survived after the operation, and recovered after weeks.
The motive to assassinate the President surprisingly had nothing to do with political reasons, but with John Hinckley’s obsession with actress Jodie Foster. This obsession was based on the movie "Taxi Driver.” He firmly believed that if he became famous by mimicking the plot from Taxi Driver, would be able to get Jodie Foster’s attention. What happened to gunman John Hinckley afterward was 13 charged against him. However, due to his mental problem, the court sent him to St. Elizabeth's Hospital for life instead of prison. The unsuccessful attempted assassination brought dramatic changes to Reagan's presidency. His survival boosted a wave of public sympathy and he gained popularity. He was also the first president who survived the assassination (Brands). Although politics was not the reason why John Hinckley opened fire, it is still one of the many major political events in the 1980s.
Chernobyl Accident 1986 (See Figure 3)
Besides wars and political unrest, there was a major unclear accident happened at Chernobyl, Ukraine. The photo that taken by authorities right after the accident shows the explosion had destroyed the entire building to a hollow hole on the ground. What happened was that event management and technical staff decided to test the turbine in case of a sudden loss of power, the strain of the reactor. This overnight test was neither carefully planned nor authorized by superiors. On the afternoon of April 25, 1986, the unit fourth in accordance with the plan was shut down, when the operation began an experiment related to the security system. The case of this experiment is to understand the plant loses all power, but the rotating turbine has enough energy capable of supplying electric power for 45 seconds, which is the time required to start the emergency diesel generator supply. The reactor power is reduced to half of the rated output, and the emergency reactor core cooling system is turned off.
After 11:10, the staffs did not re-open the emergency cooling system, which was the first major mistake, according to a series of serious negligence operations are: the output power was reduced to one percent of rated output, much lower than the power required for the experiment; the majority of the control rods withdrawn; and the other important safety system was turned off. These operational mistakes made the unit fourth become unstable. Output had been rising rapidly, technical workers lost control of the reactor, output power rose to up to 100 times the rated output, and thus part of the fuel rods ruptures, and the heat burst a lot of things to make the cooling water evaporation, resulting in a steam explosion destroying a weight of about 1,000 tonnes of reactor cover. From May 1 to 6, due to the reactor explosion, more than 26 percent of the radiation dose was released into the outside world, 31 firefighters and two people from the plant lost their lives, most of them have been severely burned from radiation, while 209 suffered severe radiation injuries (U.S.NRC).
Strictly speaking, the Chernobyl accident cannot be called a "human error." It was more like a "willful violation." It seemed following the scheduled timetable was seen as more important than safety. Staff were prohibited from running the operation under low power, and stopped safety device testing. It was like in travel a little faster by car, removing the brakes in the car regardless of rules or safety, and just desperately rushing forward to the destination, leading to a monstrous disaster. 25 years later today, the area outside of Chernobyl nuclear plant still reminds uninhabitable. People’s belongings still stay in the same spots, but not a trace of life in sight.
The fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989 (See figure 4)
Finally, the voice of freedom is rising at the end of 1980s. After nearly three decades of separation, the Berlin Wall finally fell down on the evening of November 9, 1989. A photo taken by Associated Press captured the moment when demonstrators tore down a piece of the Berlin wall. Berlin Wall and the wall that speared North and South Korea right now is the same product after World War II. After World War II, Germany and Berlin by the Soviet Union, the United States, Britain and France divided Germany into four zones. In 1949, the Soviet Union occupied East Germany, the capital set in East Berlin. West Germany and the US and British law were established in the occupied territories. Initially people in Berlin were able to move around freely between the districts, but with the Cold War, tensions started building up. In order to prevent East Germans from fleeing to West Germany. The border began to close up. From 1949 to 1961, about 2.5 million East Germans who risked being shot by East Germany fled to West Berlin. Berlin Wall started just barbed wires in August 13, 1961. It was later replaced by a large number of real fences more than 155 kilometers long, about 3 to 4 meters high (Behind The Wall). After the construction was completed, a total of more than 5000 people successfully fled to West Berlin, 3000 people were arrested, and over 400 people were killed and injured (Leslie).
25 years ago, the new East German government began to plan to relax travel restrictions for East German people, but due to a misunderstanding of the then East German Politburo on superior orders, mistakenly announced Berlin Wall is about to open, resulting in tens of thousands of people took to the streets, the demolition of the wall, the whole of Germany into a state of extreme excitement. One of the Time reporter Ken Olsen recalled the day when he was in Germany says “They were screaming, Tor auf! Tor auf! Open the gate!” (Rothman) Although it was not the structure of walls collapsed, it had been removed by people. People climbed the Berlin Wall, removed graffiti, and took pieces of building materials as souvenirs. 11 months later, the two Germanies finally reunited.
Tank Man, 1989 (See figure 5)
Just several months before the Fall of Berlin Wall, in Tiananmen Square Beijing, China, a "Tank man" stood in front of type 59 tanks and attempted to block their way. He was pulled away by another man lright after. This thrilling scene happened to be caught by Jeff Widener (The Associated Press) in June 5, 1989 who was inside the Plaza Hotel next to the Tiananmen Square. He hid the negatives in the toilet water tank to avoid police forces’ search or the truth will not have spread around the world (Iyer). What triggered this event can be traced back to the Deng Xiaoping era. He was in power after 1979 and the implement reform and opened up policy on topic such as to industrialized, agriculture, national defense, science and technology, "four modernizations." After a decade of reform, social and economic problems, such as a widening wealth gap and serious inflation; workers' were dissatisfied because their salaries did not keep up with the pace of inflation, causing large flow of the rural population to the cities to make a living, leading to more homeless beggars and other social issues; official corruption, and other deep complaints. By the end of 1986, students at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei held anti-corruption protests. Then, Shanghai, Beijing and other cities have also lead to student protests, they asked the government to carry out democratic reforms. CPC (Communist Party of China) General Secretary Hu Yaobang was tough because of the absence of clearance, and he had been criticized and resigned from office in the following year the General Secretary (Lui).
The spring of 1989, the international communist forces collapsed. Democratic movements began in Eastern Europe. Inspired by the movement, in late April 1989, students and Beijing residents’ protests gathered in Tiananmen Square. Since then, the whole country has undergone a similar student protest movement. On June 3 in the evening, the CPC decided to send troops to suppress, to disperse the crowd in and around Tiananmen Square, the army opened fire to the masses, and even tanks shot protesters. By 4 in the morning, the army controlled Square, people were forced to evacuate. The next day, after the first night of the crackdown, Tiananmen Square was cleared. All of the students who were in the movement for several months disappeared without a trace. Everything had been wiped out. The tanks in Tiananmen traveled quickly around, declaring military force. The photo of the “Tank Man” became a symbol of Tiananmen. It showed the courage of ordinary people fighting on behalf of freedom. Unsung heroes raised up public concern of their human rights. Before then, people constantly live under fear of the iron fist.
To summarize, thanks to the efforts of photographers, the future generation can see the 1980s was not only overwhelmed by national conflicts, politics, and unfortunate accidents, but was also a decade of new beginning. See how photos show the stories of the time. It is not about the photo itself such as how it was constructed, or what kind of the camera photographers used, but it is about the messages that those photos are trying to deliver. Sharbat Gula the Afghan girl’s frightened eyes revealed how it was when international communism was still powerful. Beloved President Reagan survived an attempted assassination, and became a god like figure in the 80s. Later, the Chernobyl Accident happened, and if there were not any photos documented, we would never know how intense it was when an unclear powerful plant melted function. At the end of the 80s, Berlin Wall fell down, and people in China stood up for freedom and human rights. Those two photos quickly became a symbol of free spirits. Visual images are so powerful that they could not only grab people’s attention, but also shout out message that words failed to present. I appreciate those brave photographers who were there at the first scene so we can look into what was going on in the past. Are we learn our lessons from history. 1980s might seem like a problematic period, but people survived to make it a better tomorrow.
Figure 1. McCurry, Steve. Afghan Girl.
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Figure 2. Reagan Assassination Attempt. Digital image. Wikipedia.
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Figure 5. Widener, Jeff. The Tank Man was trying to block the way of tanks
with his own body alone during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
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