The (in)disputable “power” of images of outrage

Select images become part of our collective visual consciousness. These images come to be known as icons. We often claim, both in the profession and in academia, that these iconic images possess “power” to imprint themselves onto people’s minds, leaving lasting impressions and moving us to action.

As I discuss at length in a previous post, a recent news image–that 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–seemed to do just that. Our collective visual consciousness was aroused to horror following the mass publication and sharing of the harrowing image of the tiny boy’s lifeless body, resting facedown in the sand, the waves lapping his angelic face.

The image, taken by Nilufer Demir and published across the globe in newspapers and on news websites, resonated with audiences and world leaders, becoming a catalyst for action. Germany and Austria, for example, opened their borders to crossing migrants, while Pope Francis urged Catholic churches across Europe to host refugees. But this image–while undoubtedly haunting–was by no means the first published image of a child who died as a result of the migrant crisis; some estimates show that more than 10,000 children have died since the beginning of the Syrian conflict.

So what was it about this particular photo that, for at least one moment, seemingly united the world and moved us to action? Certainly photographs have the ability to imprint themselves in our minds and become part of our collective visual consciousness. And the photos of the drowned Syrian boy did just that. But only for a moment. Research by the European Journalism Observatory found that following the mass publication of the harrowing image, European media showed a “surge in sympathetic coverage” of the refugee crisis, but the surge was short lived rather than a “long term shift” in media coverage. Reporting on that same study, On The Media, suggested that the photo “signaled merely a blip of public and media empathy,” adding, “We all cried when we saw this photo. Then we forgot.”

Guiding questions, with both theoretical and practical implications, arise: Why are some images remembered and others are forgotten? And if the photo does become one of the handful of images that “sticks with us” to become a photographic icon, do we, over time, remember the photo, but not the event that the photo has come to represent? Is there an impression that iconic photos lead to action? Do iconic photos really hold power? So what, then, is the value of iconic images from a public and political perspective? And as we move farther into an era of digital news and social media (citizen created and shared content), how does this affect the formation of iconic imagery?

A current research project, in collaboration with Daniel D. Morrison and Natalia Mielczarek, explores iconic images and visual collective memory throughout history and into the era of digital news and social media. Through the study of audience reaction to and knowledge of 18 images, our research considers connections between public acknowledgement, emotional reaction, and image recognition. Studying such relationships will help us to further understand the (in)disputable “power” that famous photographs possess to imprint themselves onto people’s minds, leaving lasting impressions and generating action.

The preliminary conclusion of our data is that while emotional reaction can be connected to image recognition, it is not necessarily a predictor of image recognition. In other words, emotional reactions cannot be said to predict image recognition. As a second key data point, higher levels of reported image importance led to higher reported knowledge. Participants were more likely to report an image as “important” if they had a stronger level of image recognition. Our data show that while participants were not hesitant to rate images as politically important, that level of political importance did not necessarily translate to image recognition. Put another way, participants often rated images as important without having any direct image recognition and subsequently, perceived knowledge of the event depicted in the image. As such, while the image may indeed be acknowledged as important it certainly could not serve as a foundation for shared public discourse, as there was limited recognition of the image and the given event.

Through digital news and social media, audiences are exposed to volumes of shocking and jarring and heartbreaking and unforgettable images, and in their volume, they are too easily forgotten. As I write in a previous post, like little Aylan Kurdi–the Syrian boy whose image for a moment seemingly united the world–the subjects and causes of these images fade into the ubiquity of harrowing images. So while audiences and scholars alike may claim that iconic images hold “power,” that power must be proven. And this may be increasingly difficult in the age of digital news and social media.

While I would normally include the images at the center of my discussion, I am purposely not including images here. To learn more about Aylan Kurdi, visit

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One response to “The (in)disputable “power” of images of outrage

  1. Pingback: Visualizing police brutality and our gun violence epidemic | Visual Communication in the Digital Age·

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