Photographer Reimagines Iconic War Photograph as a Fight for the Environment

Photographer Reimagines Iconic War Photograph as a Fight for the Environment

Every photographer has come to a point where he thought he did not have the right gear, enough budget, the team, or just the perfect idea to make a project come to life. There are those that then let an idea go and others, like Anthony Kurtz, that keep their ideas in mind until all the elements come together.

You've probably already seen Kurtz's name or work. One of his most well-known projects is probably his recreation of the famous painting, "Liberty Leading the People." He is back with another reinterpretation of a famous piece of art. This time, he chose Joe Rosenthal's iconic picture, "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima," as his inspiration.

Joe Rosenthal’s 1945 “Raising the flag on Iwo Jima.”

Kurtz had to delay the project for months because he could not figure out how to pull it off. The concept was to recreate Rosenthal's image, but with a group of survivors planting a tree on a landfill in a desperate attempt to save humanity, instead of the military raising a flag in enemy territory.

His first issue was to find the perfect tree. Buying one would have cost him over a thousand dollars and cutting one down from the forest would be against the very concept of his picture. Hypocrisy was not an option, so he had to find a solution that could fit his budget. The location of the shoot was the other issue he was facing — how and where to get a permit to shoot on a construction site. He spent months trying to find a solution to both problems until the day where everything came together.

While walking around in one of Berlin's parks, he found a bunch of cut-down, almost decaying tree trunks on the ground and thought he could use these to "build" his own tree. Building a tree is probably not something you would think of at first, but it's actually quite smart. Using the dead part of the trees he found, he then only had to find a couple of younger branches with leaves and tie everything together using metal wires. Anthony eventually decided to cut the trunk into two parts and build a mechanism that allowed him to snap the two pieces back together once on location. The first issue was solved, and he didn't have to sacrifice his bank account or his concept.

Tree found in the park.

Assembly of the tree.

System to separate the tree into two parts.

However, he was still left with the problem of choosing the location. He came to the realization that trespassing and shooting illegally somewhere would be both risky and stressful. So, he decided to use similar props to the one he used for his "Liberty Leading the People" shoot and make his own hill behind his former studio. What Kurtz had not realized initially was how enormous the task of creating a six-to-eight foot hill would be.

Sketch of the set and final image.

With a bit of luck, just a couple of days before the shoot, he found the perfect construction site just three minutes away. The hill he had in mind was just sitting there and had easy access, and so, he decided to change his plans. While building the hill behind the studio was still on his to-do list, he decided only to build 30% of it as a backup plan and instead, tried to shoot everything directly on the construction site.

The last part Kurtz had to figure out was the cast. He decided to ask his friends to model for him. The only rule he had was having people of the same size, but he wanted a mix of men and women, as well as different ethnicities. He wanted to break the "white hero" mold of older depictions.

Schedule of the Shoot

The first day of the shoot, Kurtz picked up the tree trunk from the park and went to a blacksmith to built a metal rig to create the mechanism that allowed him to separate the tree into two parts. He then worked on the styling and went to the construction site to shoot his clean frames of the hill. It's also interesting to note that he moved the props around to make the hill the way he envisioned it.

Construction site.

The second day, he finalized the tree by painting it so that it looked seamless, like the real thing. Then, the shoot with the models could begin. They started with the safe plan, shooting with the camera on a tripod at ground level (a similar point of view as Joe Rosenthal's original picture). It took Kurtz and his crew twenty minutes to get everything he needed.

They then moved to the construction site, but nothing happened as expected: The neighbors were watching and filming the shoot, the models were distracted, the light was flat, and the trees above were interfering with the tree they were using. Adding to that was the stress of having the police that could roll by anytime and decide to stop to see what was going on. Kurtz decided to cut it short as he knew he would use the first images they shot anyway.


The post-production was pretty tedious. Anthony ended up doing five different versions, but the more he worked on it, the further the result was from his concept and from the original image. It was becoming too dark, and the sense of hope the image was meant to give was almost gone. It was only after showing the different versions to one of his friends that he decided to go back to the first version and refine it. Well, "refine" it is a small word. He spent over twenty hours refining the first version!

Due to the different versions of the image, the gif doesn't show the process from start to finish in the correct order.

What We Can Learn from Kurtz's Work

When Kurtz contacted me with this image, I was very interested. His work is very inspiring, but even more inspiring are his concepts and the work he puts into his projects. For this project, he spent a total of $70 and didn't even use his camera gear. It would be a great idea to give people complaining about not having the means or the equipment to achieve a project Kurtz's website.

Sharing was also a notion that he mentioned multiple times to me in the answers he sent my way. To thank and pay everyone that helped him on his project, he will give them a limited edition print. During the retouching project, he also showed friends his work to see what could be improved or had to be changed. This is very important. Oftentimes as artists, we get stuck with an idea, but don't see the issues before publishing it and getting feedback from the viewers. 

Finally, something I used to do, but don't much anymore, is sitting on a project before releasing it. Anthony said that he's always waiting about a week or so before publishing a project. It usually helps to have a more detached, less emotional judgment of a picture. Having the ability to come back to a photo a couple of days after and just fine-tune a couple of details before releasing it to your public might be the difference between a good and a great picture.

If you have not seen his work already, but rather discovered it through this article, definitely check out Kurtz's website and Instagram.

Final image from the project.

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qwe qwe's picture

really really like this idea and final result! would love to see this image on billboards or big railway stations, where many people are reached and can think about it while waiting for the train

Mr Blah's picture

It looks inspired by this ad by WWF, but MUCH BETTER executed.

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Chelsey Rogers's picture

You should check out Kurtz's "Liberty Leading the People"

Dan Dooley's picture

For some reason the photo doesn't set well with me. The original Iwo Jima photograph is a symbol of sacrifice and remembrance. I guess, for me, Kurtz finished piece is riding on the back of a sacred icon.

Darragh Sinnott's picture

Repurposing icons is common in art, advertising and design. The sanctity of any image is temporary. This image has been repeatedly appropriated Kutz would not be among the first. Anyhow the original photo is them changing the flag for a bigger one, not initially raising it.

Dan Dooley's picture

I understand your attempt of minimizing and justify a classless repurposing of what many Americans recall as a treasured visual icon of WWII. Its sad you giving my a mini history lesson that my 7 years in art school has more than covered, because I stand on the side of perserving sanctity of those who gave their freedom on Iwo Jima. BTW Darragh, what is your opinion of Kurtz use of such iconic photo and when do you think the sanctity of the second raising flag photo expired? You have to understand the justification of any art should not desecrate or at minimum undermined the dignity those with greater intentions. Although, Kutz's image is not among the first, should my tolerance be less?

Darragh Sinnott's picture

Well there are quite a few questions here so I will resist the urge to pass a snide comment about your poor grammar although you claim to have spent seven years in art school and move on to answering your questions.

"I understand your attempt of minimizing and justify a classless repurposing of what many Americans recall as a treasured visual icon of WWII."

While this is not a question it is a fallacious claim as you are asserting that I am both minimizing and justifying something to be 'classless'. Under no circumstances did I ever state that environmental awareness was classless. That is an assertion that you have cast onto me. In fact it is you that are making that assertion and attempting to pass it as mine.

You follow this with stating that it is 'sad' that I am 'giving a mini history lesson' that your time in art school has covered. Well should your time in art school have taught you the specifics on Iowa Jima I apologize, you see I was unaware that the general art school curriculum covered that one particular incident, however as part of a compound sentence you also include an opinion telling of personal beliefs. I am not sure if this statement addresses my assertion that images relevance and time decays that relevance or you feel my comment about the history of the event is general knowledge.

My opinion of Kuntz's photo is as such, it is a time appropriate adaption for a different call to action. I am sure you had no problem when it was used as a call to buy war bonds as it was frequently used. The use of an 'iconic' form adapted for a new cause does not depreciate the historical impact of said image. However the so said 'sanity' of the image will fluctuate over time will depreciate as world views change and people interpret it as they will. If you wish to uphold it in your mind feel free that is your right but it has little effect on how the rest of the world works.

Are you equally as moved by the appropriation of the other historical adaption above? Many people died in the French revolution. If you assert that all images that pay homage to the dead will hold their relevance through out time then you must surely agree that maxim is held across all nationalities and cultures. What say you about the relevance of works that represent tyrants that we still hold as historical treasures? I reference David's death of Marat.

You then state that the 'justification of art should not desecrate or at minimum undermine the dignity of those with greater intentions'. First of all I was unaware you felt that a desecration was taking place. You must have much stronger feelings against this than you first commented. Then you is the use of the word 'should'; when you state should you give art utility, art has no universal utility. Art just exists regardless of its purpose. I also have a problem with the actual point of this statement as I can reference several underminings within the art world. From Andres Serrano's Pisschrist to Maurixio Cattelan's The ninth Hour, as far back as Caravaggio's Death of the Virgin. Then there is your assumption of all those with good intentions in fact do good deeds. My opinion on that is synonymous with Camus's.

As far as it not sitting well with you fell free to have your opinion but please avoid asserting that this is a 'desecration' or asserting that my opinion supports 'desecration' as that is the sort of rhetoric that causes for long winded posts that veer away from the intended purpose of the article. As for tolerance that is up to you I am not going to tell you what you should do as your are entitled to do as you please but like or not you are tolerating this work, in fact you are bringing it attention by attacking it. You have little option other than to tolerate it as you lack the power to remove it from the public sphere and I doubt you will do much as this argument closes.

juergen buettner's picture

Great idea and quite well done