IMAGE TALK with Noella Ballenger: What makes that photo work…

Memorial Day has just passed, honoring all those who have served in the United States Armed Forces, and July 4th will arrive soon – the day that America commemorates the 1776 adoption of the Declaration of Independence. In thankful remembrance, we searched for an image that would symbolize the sacrifice of the men and women who built our nation and have kept it safe and secure since its’ founding. David Kay’s photograph quietly makes a statement of strength, courage, conviction and dedication. It is iconic in that he has distilled the essence of a somber military burial that will touch the hearts of many. 

by David Kay

© 2009 David Kay. All rights reserved.

Subject: Traditional American gravesite military funeral honors – the silent folding of the flag at Arlington National Cemetery has begun.

Conditions: “For several years I have contributed to an effort to photograph services for families who had loved ones being buried at ANC. Photographing the event allows them to later see much of what they missed in their grief, as well as to share the experience with those who were not there or were too young to remember it.”


1. Iconic simplicity
2. Flag and military uniforms give an immediate sense of situation and place.
3. Strong diagonal lines
4. Soft background created by limited depth of field
5. White gloved hands show tension
6. Contrasting colors add impact

Noella’s comments:

Images that become “iconic” in one’s mind have a number of things in common. First-and-foremost is their power of communication of a single idea. In simple and very clear ways, the iconic image allows the viewer an immediate understanding of the action, the time and the place. In David’s image, the position of the flag being held by the white-gloved hands and the uniforms tells us that this is a military funeral where the silent folding of the American flag has just started.

As we look closely at the image, our first thought is the simplicity of design. There is no doubt about what the subject is. Contributing to that simplicity is the angle from which the photo was taken. The strong diagonals made by the stripes in the flag and the officer’s hands pull you through the image, while the abrupt end to the flag against a green backdrop stops your eye from moving on and brings you back again.

By limiting the depth of field, David continues to keep our attention and eye riveted to the action.

By including the white gloved hands prominently in the photo, you are aware of the sense of tension needed by these hands and the perceived hands of others to keep the flag horizontally level.

Along with the strong contrast in colors there is also a contrast in thought created here – death and the vibrant colors of life.

By not including the officer’s faces, David has produced a piece of art that has tangible anonymity, making it timeless and universal.

Working to distill the essence of an idea or story into one image that can create an emotional response and leave a lasting impression on the viewer takes clarity of thought. We think David Kay did that here and did it very well.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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