For me, Ernst Haas’s “Homecoming” is one of the best photojournalistic projects ever done. This particular photo might just say everything the whole series says at once.
For most (if not all) of the photos that I consider personal favourites, there are many aspects that seem to determine why they stick with me. The difficulty is, of course, to find words to describe what is going on without allowing one aspect to obfuscate another one.
This photo was taken in 1950, when former prisoners of war returned to Vienna. Waiting for them were relatives who hoped that their son or brother would be amongst those soldiers arriving by train. It is not hard to see here who the different people are - we don’t know their names, but we know immediately what brought them to this particular spot. In front of a crowd of mostly young people stands an elderly lady, holding a photo of a soldier, probably her son, and anxiously waiting to either see that son again or, at least, to hear something - anything - about him. The man who is walking past her, smiling and not looking at her, is not her son. We don’t really know whether he is one of the returning soldiers, but given his smile and given that appears to be carrying something it is very likely that he indeed just disembarked from the train of former prisoners of war.
The interaction (or actually the lack of interaction) between the woman with the photo and the happy man sets the stage for how the photo achieves its effect: I don’t know how many other photos manage to show such a wide range in emotions, while involving so few people.
I realize that when I look at this photo I often ask myself how I would have felt being one of the people in the photo. And it’s not just the two main characters in the photo (the third main character is defined by his absence and merely casts a huge shadow in the form of his portrait), also the people in the background. What must it have been like for a boy like the one behind the elderly lady, to be there at the train station, seeing those men come back home, and seeing the relatives who hope to find their loved one(s)?
I think one of the strengths of this photo is not only that it tells a story, it also leaves behind questions in the viewer’s mine (at least in mine).
Of course, this photo is a bit of a “decisive moment” - we must assume that the photographer positioned himself in front of the elderly lady, having probably observed her imploringly looking at the file of men walking past. But unlike so many other “decisive moments”, this one is more than just a moment, because the photo sums up so much - something that many other famous “decisive moments” can’t claim for themselves at all!