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The many lives of a photo

By Jean Christou

Does a picture really paint a thousand words or do a thousand words help paint a more accurate picture?

With the Cyprus Mail celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, we have been selecting archive material to upload onto the website. In the process we came across the negative of a photo taken in 1956 during the EOKA uprising. Unlike many images that are self-explanatory, this one calls out for its story to be told. And for that, we need the words every bit as much as the haunting image.

In the black and white photo two men are lying on the ground, a third is looking to his left, another man is walking towards the photographer, a woman has her hand up to her mouth in shock and horror and several bystanders are looking on.

The photo was taken outside the then Cyprus Mail office on Ledra Street in Nicosia, known at that time as Murder Mile. It was September 28, 1956. The men on the ground were newly-arrived British intelligence officers. One is dead, the other is dying.

feature jean - Bob Egby
Former Cyprus Mail photographer Robert Egby now lives in the United States

 

Both were shot. The man looking to his left who has been hit by bullets in the neck is watching the EOKA gunman running away. It emerged much later that the shooter was Nicos Sampson, Cyprus’ ‘Eight-Day President’ who was installed in July 1974 after the failed Greek-engineered coup and just prior to the Turkish invasion.

According to later writings by Sampson, the three Britons had been in a camera shop boasting about how they had come to crush EOKA leader George Grivas. The shop clerk overheard them and informed the organisation, which caught up with them at a second shop. The man walking towards the photographer was the then editor of the Cyprus Mail Victor Bodker.

As for the photographer himself, there is probably no one else in that photo still alive today to tell the tale. In his 2011 book, Kings, Killers and Kinks in the Cosmos, Robert Egby brings the photo to life, this time with words.

“Friday, September 28th 1956 was a day of horror. The British media headlined what happened this day as “Murder on High Street.” Just after 10am the offices at the Cyprus Mail saw a new journalistic light.

A new reporter Roy Bellm arrived and was talking with Victor Bodker. Although the aging Victor was shortly to depart for the UK, he suggested the Mail needed more local features. Finding my camera empty, I sat and reloaded while I listened to Mr Bellm.

At 10.26 am a sharp rattling noise outside. I initially thought one of the printers had dropped a box of lead type. Victor looked out of the window into the closed alley. He watched as the Ledra Street kiosk operator ran in with the news. ‘There’s a killing outside!’

I grabbed my camera and raced out to Ledra Street. Victor and Roy were ahead of me. On Murder Mile shoppers and strollers were rushing to get away. On the street I could see three prone figures! All had been shot. I immediately recognised all three as British police constables who had recently arrived in Nicosia. Each one was in civilian clothes, shirts and pants.

As I walked onto the street I started taking pictures. It was automatic. I could see one man was dead; another was on his back, waving his arms and in the throes of dying. The third man, trying to stay on his feet was looking up Murder Mile. He had a gun drawn. Victor Bodker was coming towards me, calling out to everyone to call an ambulance. A lady named Mrs Leyland whose husband often came into the paper, had been shopping and was walking by. That is the moment I took the picture. It was tragedy frozen in time.

Roy rushed up to the wounded man and helped him sit down on some steps. Suddenly many people gathered around to help. ‘Ambulances won’t come,’ said a Greek shop manager. ‘They’re scared. Let’s get a taxi.’ Victor flagged one down.

Two minutes later the wounded man and his two dead comrades were on their way to Nicosia Hospital. The first British troops arrived and started searches. Meanwhile I was developing the pictures and a few minutes later I was on my Lambretta scooter, on my way to Cable and Wireless. The girl behind the counter at the cable office gasped as I handed her the picture.

The British media splashed the story and my photo. One headlined it: ‘Murder on High Street,’ another ‘Death at High Noon’, and ‘EOKA Killers Slay British Bobbies’.

The victims on that Friday, September 28th were Sergeant HB Carter, and Sergeant CJ Thoroughgood, both deceased. The third man, Sergeant WIJ Webb, who received five bullets, miraculously recovered and told how he had fired after the fleeing EOKA gunman.”

Egby, now 83, and living in New York state, told the Sunday Mail this week that 1956 saw many stories that made international headlines. Another one of his most famous photos involved the killing of a Turkish Cypriot man Bonici Mompalda. Egby said he snapped a photo of Momplada’s fiancée seated on the pavement beside the body. The photo, like the killing of the British officers made the front page of most of the British dailies.

“I took a general picture of the group surrounding the body. It included Brian Wright, a sub-editor at CM and also Nicos Sampson. The group picture took on a history of its own when Sampson was arrested,” Egby said.

The Bonici photo scored an Honorary Mention in the News Photo category of British Press Pictures of the Year 1956. Egby eventually moved on from Cyprus in 1961 but his famous photograph on Ledra Street outside the Cyprus Mail, which had been published in all of the newspapers in Cyprus and in the UK, has a significance way beyond one bloody day in 1956.

The Cyprus Mail photo is prominently featured in an academic article “War Museums and Photography” by Theopisti Stylianou-Lambert and Alexandra Bounia published in the journal “Museum and Society” in November 2012. The two researchers wanted to see how the use of photographs in museums in Cyprus specifically, revealed different perspectives in the political construction of historical narratives by appealing to emotions.

This is where Egby’s photo really comes into play. Stylianou-Lambert, a lecturer at the Cyprus University of Technology told the Sunday Mail she and her co-author had found that it was the only common photo on display in both the Greek Cypriot museum of the struggle in southern Nicosia and the Turkish Cypriot national struggle museum in northern Nicosia. But that’s not all.

“In our research we found that photographic material is always used very differently. There were no common images. This was the only one,” she told the Sunday Mail. “But it was used in totally different ways.”

feature jean - Bob Egby in 1960, aged 28,  reading the Cyprus Mail in the office
Rober Egby in 1960, aged 28, reading the Cyprus Mail in the office

 

Museums and photographs are considered to be reliable and credible and thus become official vehicles of history, despite the fact that they may provide only a partial, and often biased, view of reality.

“Endorsed by the aura of the museum’s authenticity, photographs serve as visual proof to help reinforce the museum’s narrative. The Greek Cypriot Struggle Museum as well as the Turkish Cypriot National Struggle Museum … predominantly use documentary photography as a claim to historical accuracy and truth,” the article says.

The authors explain how a photograph has at least three different levels which one has to consider in order to get a fuller picture: (a) its internal context, which includes what one can see; (b) its original context, which includes information about who, when, how and why the photograph was taken, as well as what events it depicts or excludes; and (c) its external context, which includes the situation in which a photograph is presented.

The Cyprus Mail photo, though displayed in both museums “becomes a part of a very different narrative depending on which side of the Green Line you are”, the research paper says.

In the Greek Cypriot museum the specific photo is included in a panel of similar photos with the overall label ‘Executions of British Intelligence Service Officers’. The dead bodies are correctly identified as British officers and those responsible as EOKA fighters. “Within the context of this museum, this is an act of bravery, an act of protection of our own against the enemy, a justifiable and even commendable act,” the article says.

In the Turkish Cypriot museum, the narrative could not be more different. The photograph appears with the label: ‘Our people [Turkish Cypriots] cruelly murdered in the streets by EOKA’. The label was still there on Thursday, the Sunday Mail can confirm. The flummoxed museum guide had no idea it was mislabeled and had been for decades.

Stylianou and Bounia said that in both cases the museums had chosen to strip the photograph of its original context and present it as part of a larger narrative to support two completely different stories.

So does Egby’s famous photo paint a thousand words? Rather more, actually: 1,513 to be precise.

Click here to view PDF of original front page

Highlights from the archives of 70 years of the Cyprus Mail are uploaded every Wednesday and Saturday.

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