Was it because a soldier and a nurse, the fighter and the healer, are the ready and recognisable symbol of the horrors of war? Or, perhaps that dark colour of the American sailor’s uniform, and her white outfit make for an elegant visual? Alfred Eisenstaedt’s iconic photograph of a kiss between strangers in the heart of Times Square in New York celebrating the Allied victory over Japan in World War II, was an image that typified the sense of hope after the destruction, the ecstasy at the possibility of a new world. Like with all powerful images, the mystery of its resonance can never quite be solved. But the optimism the picture symbolised began steadily diminishing, almost as soon as it was taken.
George Mendonsa, the sailor, died earlier this week at 95, and Greta Friedman, the nurse, had passed away in 2016. Eisenstaedt never revealed the names of his subjects, and it was only in the 1960s that the pair realised that their fleeting kiss was an indelible record of history. Friedman, in fact, has said that “it wasn’t much of a kiss” and it has been pointed out that the image could very well be a violation of her consent. Politically, the Cold War and the threat of extinction, the seeds of which were sown by the victory over Japan, began to loom large from the 1950s itself. And, many would argue, the world hasn’t become much better.
What was the unknown sailor celebrating? The end of a horrific war, but also the defeat of a jingoistic, exclusive nationalism that thrived on the vilification of the other and the militarisation of society. As the generation that witnessed that time passes on, their experiences seem distant: But from Europe to North America and Asia and Latin America, the chants of an aggressive nationalism ring forth once again. The after-life of the image of the kiss has been more ambiguous than could have been imagined in 1945.