On today´s International Kissing Day I cover the story behind the photograph called “V-J Day in Times Square” by Alfred Eisenstaedt.
A kiss can have many meanings: joy, love, victory, passion, power etc. This very kiss changed its meaning: For a long time it was seen as a symbol of victory and romance but nowadays some see sexual assault in it. But why?
It is the 14th August 1945 on New York City´s Time Square. The Victory over Japan Day (“V-J Day”) is celebrated. Alfred Eisenstaedt is taking pictures with a Leica IIIa camera. One among them is the so-called “V-J Day in Times Square”, where a sailor grabs and kisses a “nurse” on the 45th Street.
The following week the photograph is published in Life magazine among many other photos, which showed the celebrations all over the US.
Who are the sailor and the “nurse”?
In the heat of the situation Eisenstaedt did not ask for the names of the sailor and the “nurse”. A few claimed to be the people on the picture: George Mendonsa (1923-2019) is said to be the sailor and Greta Zimmer Friedman the “nurse”.
The Austrian Greta Zimmer Friedman (1924-2016) had to flee the Nazis in 1939 and emigrated to the US.
This is how Friedman recalls the 14th August 1945:
I was working in a dental office on Lexington Ave. for two brothers, JD and JL Burke. All morning long people would come in a say there seems to be rumors that the was ending. Since I wasn’t very far from Time’s Square, I could just walk over there and see for myself. After my bosses came back at 1 :00 from their lunch hour, I went I, straight to Time’s Square where I saw, on the lighted bill board that goes around the building. .. ‘V-J Day, V-J Day!’ That really confirmed what the people had said in the office. Suddenly, I was grabbed by a sailor. It wasn’t that much of a kiss. It was more of a jubilant act that he didn’t have to go back. I found out later he was so happy that he didn’t have to go back to the Pacific where they had already been through the war. The reason he grabbed somebody dressed like a nurse, that he felt so very grateful to the nurses who took care of the wounded. I had to go back to the office, and I told my bosses what I had seen.Greta Zimmer Friedman in the interview with Patricia Redmond in 2005
In the 1960s Friedman saw the picture and recognized herself in it. She contacted Life magazine but they said that the woman on the picture was somebody else. But in 1980 Life Magazin contacted her and apologized to her for not believing her.
Did you know that …
Friedman did not even know that she had been photographed until the 1960s.
In the interview with Redmond Friedman says that she was not a nurse but:
I was a dental assistant. I had a white dress because we dressed the same way. In some ways, we did what nurses do, in other words, help the patient, make them more comfortable, and often they would do extractions, so it was surgery.Greta Zimmer Friedman in the interview with Patricia Redmond in 2005
The photo´s meaning
Over time the understanding of the photo change from a symbol of victory to one of glorified sexual assault.
The sailor was seen as representing the returning troops and the nurse as welcoming him back home.
Actually, by the photographer creating something that was very symbolic at the end of a bad period…it was a wonderful coincidence a man in a sailor’s uniform and a woman in a white dress…and a great photographer at the right time.Greta Zimmer Friedman in the interview with Patricia Redmond in 2005
The forced kiss
In the 2010s the photo was reinterpreted by some: It is seen as a glorified sexual assault. As the drunk sailor kissed Friedman:
It wasn’t my choice to be kissed… (in 1945). The guy just came over and grabbed! (in 1980 for the reenactment of the kiss) I told him I didn’t want to redo that pose! We have the picture here, and it is kind of a reenactment of the pose and the sign on Time’s Square says, ‘It had to be you!’Greta Zimmer Friedman in the interview with Patricia Redmond in 2005
P. S. maybe you realized that a used the photo “Kissing the War Goodbye” by the US Navy photo journalist Victor Jorgensen instead Eisenstaedt´s?
Jorgensen´s photo shows the same scene from another ankle but it is a public domain, while Eisenstaedt´s is not.