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The Story Behind the Picture: The Ultimate Confrontation

On the 21st of October 1967, 17-year-old high school student Jan Rose Kasmir found herself at an anti-Vietnam war rally at the Pentagon. By this point, the war in Vietnam had been raging for over 10 years and the anti-war movement had become considerable, creating a widespread counterculture that advocated for peace and an end to US involvement in Vietnam and similar proxy wars developing throughout the latter half of the 20th century.

There were an estimated 100,000 anti-war activists at this particular protest, organised by the National Mobilisation Committee to End the War in Vietnam, when photographer Marc Riboud took this iconic picture of Kasmir holding up a chrysanthemum in front of the gun wielding National Guard soldiers. It was said that Kasmir was beckoning the soldiers to join them, but none of the soldiers made eye contact with her. The photographer later informed her that they were shaking, frightened that they were going to receive orders to fire at the peaceful crowd. “She was just talking, trying to catch the eye of the soldiers, maybe trying to have a dialogue with them,” Riboud recalled years later. “I had the feeling the soldiers were more afraid of her than she was of the bayonets”.

Jan Rose Kasmir was not aware that day, that a photograph had been taken of her. The photo was featured in the 1969 special edition of ‘Look’ magazine, titled ‘The Ultimate Confrontation: The Flower and the Bayonet’, but it was not until the 1980s that Kasmir herself found out about the photograph.

If you look at my face, I am extremely sad: at that moment I realised how young these boys were. They were just as much a victim of the war machine as anyone else.

Flowers used to contrast wars and violence has always been an extremely powerful image, and a recurring one when thinking of the poppies used to remember World War I and the carnations in Portugal’s 1974 Carnation Revolution. In the backdrop to the Vietnam War and growing resentment towards American involvement, this image of image of Kasmir became a worldwide symbol of the pacifist and flower power movement within the Cold War. It shows the dawn of a new era of counterculture embodied by her generation, who were not interested in pursuing war, violence and destruction, and who were willing to present the offering of flowers in the face of menacing, cold, metal barrel of a gun in the hopes of giving peace a chance.

Sofia C, Year 13

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