Two Faces of Revolution
The curious history of a famous photo from the Hungarian Revolution, and what the people in the picture came to symbolize.
The source: “An Emblematic Picture of the Hungarian 1956 Revolution: Photojournalism During the Hungarian Revolution” by Eszter Balázs and Phil Casoar, in Europe-Asia Studies, Dec. 2006.
American photographer Russ Melcher had a symbolic image of the Hungarian Revolution in his mind as he roamed the streets of Budapest on the morning of October 30, 1956. He wanted to portray the “youth and spirit of freedom” that had led Hungarian students and workers to rise up against their Soviet overlords. Sometimes armed only with kitchen implements and gasoline, the rebels had won remarkable victories in a week of fighting across the country, and the Soviets seemed hesitant, even willing to negotiate.
Spotting Jutka, with a wound on her face, and Gyuri, carrying a machine gun too large for him, Melcher was captivated by their half-bohemian, half-proletarian look and their shabby clothes. A passerby, never identified, refused to get out of the frame, and moved toward the photographer carrying a pistol.
Melcher’s photograph, “Heroes of Budapest,” became emblematic of the revolution, which was effectively crushed by Soviet tanks only a week later, with the loss of thousands of lives. It became a powerful symbol in both the West and the East, write Eszter Balázs, a Ph.D. candidate at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, and Phil Casoar, a Paris journalist. In the West, it symbolized the idealism of a dedicated young couple determined to free their native Hungary. In the East, it was evidence that counterrevolutionaries—such as the menacing man with the pistol—had recruited children to overthrow the legitimate government.
In the tradition of war photojournalism, the picture’s genesis was a haphazard affair. It was shot by a photographer who had set out to record another event in another country, but slipped into Hungary when the Czech border was closed. It was falsely credited to a Paris-Match photographer, Jean-Pierre Pedrazzini, who was fatally wounded the afternoon the picture was taken. Melcher allowed Paris-Match to attribute the photo to the late Pedrazzini in “homage” and to increase circulation of the image. “If a photographer has been killed in action and this is one of his last pictures, every paper wants to publish it,” Melcher explained to Casoar in an interview. It was posed, not spontaneous, and the pistol-toting passerby who wouldn’t step out of the way added a sinister twist that became its salient element in the Eastern bloc. The picture appeared inside an edition of Paris-Match that featured Israeli general Moshe Dayan on the cover, but it is the image from Hungary that became famous.
Captions and text framed the propaganda battle over the photograph’s meaning. Paris-Match identified the youths as heroes: “In the eyes of this couple, our reporters on the street saw the soul of the uprising. He took his gun from an army depot. She, wounded, turned her school bag into a first-aid kit. Behind them, a passerby with a pistol.” In separate commentary, the magazine lauded Hungary as a “noble and Christian nation [that] has never given its support to totalitarianism and barbarism.” In America, Time magazine used the Paris-Match picture as partial inspiration for its composite Hungarian freedom fighter “Man of the Year.”
Soon after, in Budapest, the picture was reproduced in exhibitions, a film, and popular books to show how “counterrevolutionary elements put children forward to hide their black intentions,” according to a caption for an exhibition, Counterrevolution of 1956, that opened in June 1957. Pictures “show well who was behind the children,” the caption continued, referring to the man with
the pistol. Communist-bloc reproductions of the picture looked overexposed, dark, or awkwardly retouched with a brush to make the couple look repulsive and frightening, according to Balázs and Casoar. Hungarian books put the pictures in Soviet context, describing how imperialist and fascist opponents of the Russian-backed government had been plotting since 1948, waiting for the right moment when Hungary would become the “battlefield of the international class fight.” Photos of young fighters taken during the rebellion were used as conclusive proof of treason during later trials, and one young woman was hanged. Gyuri’s fate is unknown, but Jutka was listed in Hungarian records as a “prohibited person” until 1989. She died a year later, in exile in Australia.