It’s an image we’ve all seen before: five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising the American flag atop a mountain on Iwo Jima during one of the U.S.’ deadliest battles.
The iconic photo became a national symbol of resilience and hope after it was taken by Joe Rosenthal in 1945, and went on to earn a Pulitzer Prize, inspire a bronze monument at the entrance of Arlington National Cemetery, and become a staple image in history textbooks.
But now, a photo adapted from that legendary image has led to massive controversy — and even death threats.
More than a decade ago, photographer Ed Freeman shot a group of male models raising a gay pride flag in a similar pose for Frontiers, an LGBT magazine. The image recently went viral on social media as a symbol of the struggle for gay rights, following the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states.
Freeman posted the photo on his Facebook after the ruling, writing, “When I took this picture almost ten years ago, it never, never occurred to me that it would someday come to symbolize the victory we are celebrating today. Congratulations to all of us! Love to you all.”
Since then, however, Freeman has faced backlash from people who claim his image is insulting to U.S. troops who have fought and died for their country. The original photo is indeed rich with emotion and history, and some say that recreating it — and using it as a symbol for another cause — is disrespectful.
Freeman told The Washington Post he’s been “swamped with vitriolic hate mail” and even received a death threat, which he promptly reported to the FBI. However, he claims he never meant for his photo to be provocative.
“The principle complaint that people have is that I am equating the gay struggle with the contribution and sacrifice of American servicemen,” he said. “But there is no equal sign here. This is not meant as a sign of disrespect. […] The comparison is going on in people’s heads, and they’re spoiling for a fight. They’re already on edge because of the gay marriage decision.”
He added, “The picture has been around for 15 years, but I’ve never had a single complaint about it until now.”
Freeman is selling prints of the image on his website, with all proceeds going to charities supporting gay veterans and gay men with HIV.