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Indiana University Journalism

50th anniversary renews interest in Counts’ photo

Jonathan Hiskes | Oct. 11, 2007
Will Counts photo of Central High School
Photo by Will Counts
For the 50th anniversary of Counts' iconic photo, his widow gave IU Archives the rights to it.
Plenty of journalists hope their work changes the world. Few see it happen as quickly as Will Counts did.

A 26-year-old photographer for the Arkansas Democrat, Counts was working on his home turf Sept. 4, 1957, when Little Rock became a flashpoint in America’s civil rights struggle for desegregation.

When nine black students tried to enter the all-white Central High School, mobs of angry white residents came to protest and intimidate them. When one of the nine, Elizabeth Eckford, arrived on her own and walked stoically through the crowd, Counts captured her resolve and a white student’s hate-filled face in one dramatic photograph.

Counts' photos of that day spread across the country through the Associated Press. One shot of a crowd kicking black journalist Alex Wilson is said to have convinced President Eisenhower to send in federal troops to protect the black students’ entry into the school.

“Will knew when he snapped that picture that he had something, but he had no idea how big it was,” said Vivian Counts, his widow, who recently returned home to Bloomington from a 50th anniversary commemoration in Little Rock last month.
After a career shooting for Associated Press, Counts (MS '54, Ed.D '67) came to the School of Journalism, where he taught for 32 years, retiring in 1995, six years before his death. The photo of Wilson led to Counts’ nomination for a Pulitzer Prize. But like others who knew him in Bloomington, she spoke of his teaching career as a vital part of his legacy.

“There was something about the way he taught that inspired so many photojournalists over the years,” said friend and School of Journalism colleague Claude Cookman. “His students have magnified his legacy through their own work.”

His former students include seven Pulitzer Prize winners, Cookman said.

Associate professor Jim Kelly, who was an associate instructor for Counts in the 1980s, said the professor knew how to keep students focused on the essentials of photojournalism.

“For you to do less than your best was a breach of the trust that subjects were placing in you,” he said of Counts’ instruction to journalists. “It was always about journalism. We’d talk about cameras, lenses and film, but it was primarily about getting the story right.”

'It was always about journalism. We’d talk about cameras, lenses and film, but it was primarily about getting the story right.'

— Associate professor Jim Kelly, one of Counts' former students.
That focus, coupled with his familiarity with the situation in 1957, helped Counts outshine the national media that had descended on Little Rock , Kelly said.

“For him, it was community journalism, even though it was a national story,” he said. “He wasn’t there as a stranger. I don’t know that he knew those two women, but he knew the situation. He knew what it was like to go to a segregated school.”

Counts did not know the two women in the photo, Eckford and Hazel Bryan, but in 1997 he helped arrange a reconciliation between them. Bryan apologized for her behavior on that notorious day, and the two gave talks together, including one at IU. Vivian Counts said Will’s photo from the 1997 reconciliation in Little Rock was one of his most cherished works, though the friendship between the two women has since fallen apart.

“It was an attempt to reconcile, an attempt to heal some of those wounds,” she said of the meeting Counts helped coordinate. “I’m just glad he did not know how things have turned around, and how the wounds have reopened for those two women.”

For his widow, acting as steward of Counts’ photographs had become a demanding task. Vanity Fair, Smithsonian magazine and HBO, among dozens, have asked permission to use the photo. The Arkansas Democrat, for reasons Vivian Counts said she nor her husband never fully understood, gave him the negatives and rights to his photos when he left to work for the AP.
Last month, she gave those rights to IU Archives, whose photo curator Will Counts had long respected, she said. Accompanying the rights was a stipulation that they not be used for commercial purposes or to promote a political party, she said.

For Counts’ former students and colleagues, being stewards of his gifts has involved more diverse work. Kelly said he sees his own teaching as informed by Counts’ inspiration.

“If I can excite a small fraction of the number of students he got excited about journalism, I’d be happy,” he said.

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