“It was the searing image that brought home the events of the day in a way that words alone could not.”
We’ve all said it, and I’ve written it numerous times in defending journalistic decisions to print graphic, disturbing, shocking, horrific images.
We’ve made the argument that the public has a right to see the grim reality of the situation. And not just has a right, but that we are obligated to see the grim reality. We need our leaders to be able to look upon such horrors with their own eyes.
We used this argument last week to defend watching a video of two American journalists being gunned down on live television.
And we used this argument today to justify printing photos of a drowned 3-year-old Syrian boy washed ashore on the Turkish coast as a result of refugees fleeing the ongoing war in Syria.
We defended the decision to print these images based on the watchdog role of the press.
We say that these images are searing.
We defend printing these images because they are horrific.
But we are overwhelmed with images of horror, images that are gazed upon one second and shared with reckless abandon across social media the next second.
We defend printing these images because they are indelible.
But they are not indelible. They are not fixed. They are not permanent. They are not lasting. It is true that they exist forever in cyberspace. But in cyberspace, they no longer exist in their originality or within context. They are warped. They are adapted. They are appropriated. Through mass sharing, digital manipulation, memes and the like, the original image loses its authority. The image, in its ubiquity of form and without context, has the potential to become meaningless.
We defend printing these images because they are unforgettable.
But they will be forgotten. The media spotlight will fade. The public interest will move on to the next crisis of faith, humanity, Hollywood.
We defend printing these images because they are powerful.
We argue that powerful images can sway public opinion and move elected leaders to action.
But they are not powerful.
We turn our back on the atrocities in our own back yard.
We ignore homeless camps on the street corner.
We ignore mass murder in schools, churches and movie theaters.
We ignore addiction, depression and mental illness.
We ignore drought, rising sea levels and tropical storms related to climate change.
I agree with the fundamental argument:
“But some upsetting images demand to be seen, precisely because they are a true representation of reality. They show us the world as it is, its cruelties exposed, and not the world as we would wish it to be. And by the shock to our eyes, our conscience may be stirred.”
But what power does the image really hold? There is no power until we are moved from awareness to action.
What must happen for us to confront the wicked issues of our day and the horrors of our own humanity?
“Humanity Washed Up Ashore”
While I would normally include the images at the center of my discussion, I am purposely not including them here. The boy in the photos is Aylan Kurdi. His 5-year-old brother and mother also drowned. To learn more about the family, visit http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/04/world/europe/syria-boy-drowning.html
Update (9/12/15): In the week since I wrote about this photo, the image has continued to make headlines.
I want to begin this update by clarifying my position. These photos absolutely should have appeared in the digital and print publications of those news outlets that routinely cover international news. These harrowing images belonged in the pages of elite news publications such as the New York Times and the Guardian. And this image should have been shared on social media. My concern was outrage that did not lead to action.
But in the days following the mass publication and sharing of this image, we have seen something unique: the action that is so desperately needed.
It appears that these heartbreaking, jarring, unforgettable images of a drowned Syrian boy may indeed be among the few indelible images that help to create a collective visual consciousness and move us to action. Many news outlets are calling this image one of those rare photos that shook the world and changed history. We shall see if the images stand the test of time.
The challenge for scholars is twofold:
First, we must determine valid and reliable ways to measure the “power” of an image. As David Perlmutter often says, we cannot say an image has “powerful” effects regarding politics, public opinion, or elite decision-making unless that power can be measured.
Second, we must continue our systematic inquiry of iconic images, asking these and other critical questions: Why are some images remembered and most are forgotten? And what does it mean if the image is remembered but not the event to which it is connected? Does print versus digital publication of an image make a difference? Does the appropriation of iconic images contribute to or detract from the indelibility of an image? In digital form, are images fleeting or fixed? And from a theory building perspective, can we predict with any certainty which images may indeed stir our collective visual consciousness and move us to action?