How many times have we glimpsed a photograph, thinking we know what it’s all about, only to realize — suddenly or gradually — that its “message” is utterly at odds with what we assumed was happening within the frame? A picture of a woman wailing with grief might, for an instant, seem to show someone laughing hysterically; a snapshot of a skier wiping out during a downhill run might, at first, look like a photo of an avalanche. But then the eye adjusts — picks up unmistakable clues — and the true sense and substance of the image clicks into place.
A viewer seeing, for the first time, Joe Scherschel’s 1951 photograph of a North Korean soldier sticking out his tongue might be forgiven for thinking, at least at first, that this is an unexpectedly lighthearted moment captured in the midst of an unimaginably tense time. After all, the picture was made when the two sides in the Korean War were holding ceasefire talks in Kaesong, North Korea, after a solid year of bitter and at times savage armed conflict. And yet here’s a soldier seemingly engaged in what, at first glance, might be seen as an almost playful bit of visual banter.
But then the true tone of the picture asserts itself, and we discern not an instance of good-humored ridicule but a portrait of genuine, bone-deep contempt. The look in the soldier’s eyes is not mischievous: it’s hostile. His expression is not jesting: it’s derisive. This is a photograph, we quickly recall, made in the midst of war. For Americans, the North Korean soldier in the picture was (and, in effect, still is) the enemy; for the soldier, meanwhile, Joe Scherschel and his camera are likely little more than emblems of Western aggression.
It is a picture that, before our eyes, transforms itself. After that, we never see it the same way again.
— Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com
[See the gallery, “LIFE in the Korean War: Classic Photos.”]