Trial by Fire: A look at yesterday’s conventions

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A young photojournalist struggles to capture the essence of a confusing and ultimately exhilarating event

Nixon leaves White House grounds in 1974 after resignation.

THE 1972 POLITICAL CONVENTIONS WERE A HISTORICAL WATERSHED FOR MANY REASONS. The nation was still sharply divided by the Vietnam War, the longest imperial war in the nation’s history, and Richard Nixon was seeking ways with his Machiavellian courtier, Henry Kissinger, of pulling out of Indochina with “honor”, without the US having to admit a humiliating strategic defeat at the hands of a Third World, mostly rural, but heroic nation.

Many people expected and prepared for riots, and some shoving around of even Big Media honchos, not to mention “civilians”, as the still fresh 1968 Chicago memory suggested, but nothing of the kind materialized even though nasty clashes did occur and something approaching semi-controlled chaos gradually descended over the place.

As a politically curious and committed 15-year old photographer and activist, John Elliott felt it was his duty to document the 1972 happenings.  The problem was how to go about it without unduly exposing camera and limbs to the probable mayhem. The final result was a compilation of text and photographs than John entitled, Trial by Fire at the Conventions—A 15-Year Old Neophyte Photographer Grows Up Quickly During A Final Spectacle in the Waning Days of Hippydom.

The whole experience did turn out to be a rite of passage for Elliott, and the material he finally produced is worth examining not only for what it says about that (for many) forgotten era, but for what it says about us during this current round of political convention spectacles. Something has indeed changed, as this mirror to the past attests. But what are the lessons?

—P. Greanville



Contributing Editor John Elliott is a communications professional with more than 30 years’ experience.  Since 1994, he has been vice president and creative director at Millennium Communications, Inc. (, an Atlanta-based media production agency. Multi-lingual and widely traveled in over 25 countries, in 2007, John founded the Fair Trade Council of the Americas (FTCA) and produced a television show and e-commerce Web site (www.FairtradeShoppingNetwork), to promote self-sufficiency for 3rd world rural villagers. He is author of “The Human Pulse,” a book of his international photography (; co-author of “Losing Paradise,” on today’s global environmental threat; and currently writing a book, “In Your Face,” on the documented medical benefits of a vegetarian diet.

5 comments on “Trial by Fire: A look at yesterday’s conventions
  1. A very interesting testimony of a complicated set of political events, and I am amazed the author was a no more than a kid when he went after this story. Photojournalism is indeed powerful when properly used to convey truth instead of sensationalism. Beautiful images in their own right!

  2. I was a 1960s “flower girl”, a total countercult freak and my brother thought we should go to Miami Beach, but I was pregnant at the time, and my boyfriend decided it was really crazy to go looking for trouble with a baby on the way. By that time the “hippie” movement had become more political, although it never acquired the clarity of vision of SDS, and other youth groups opposing the war. My brother did go and had a great time. It should be recalled that in the minds of many young Americans like me, until Kent, the 1968 riots in Chicago, etc., the whole confrontational thing was not invested with a huge amount of risk. America has yet to have a Chapultepec massacre or something along those lines. And that’s not to credit the system, but the fact that, by and by, the ruling circles in this country have really little determined opposition.

    Thanks for a great photoessay.
    RD, Manassas

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