Why We Need to Look at Horrible, Graphic Images

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In the last week, a photograph changed the conversation about the Syrian refugee crisis. In it, a three-year-old boy, Aylan Kurdi, lies face down on a beach in Turkey. His feet are tucked together, his palms are facing up, and he’s wearing a red shirt, blue shorts and shoes. We can’t see his face. It’s a difficult image to look at because of his innocence. He didn’t deserve this, and yet there he was, a stark reminder of the devastating effects of the ongoing civil war in Syria. His older brother Galip and his mother Rehan also drowned when their Greece-bound boat capsized. His father Abdullah survived. The image of Aylan took Twitter and Facebook by storm, and showed up on the front pages of many publications around the world. There were intense editorial discussions across many newsrooms about the ethics of publishing such a photo.

It’s easier to talk about the ramifications of publishing an image rather than about what led to that image’s creation. In Aylan’s case, it was an attempt to make it safer shores. Fortunately, the image struck enough of a cord that it helped to refocus the dialogue. Statistics fell by the wayside. It became about the people.

We often stray away from images that are too difficult to deal with. We shut off the television when the news gets too heavy, or we scroll past something or back right out when the content is deeply unsettling. I interviewed a photographer recently who showed me a copy of James Nachtwey’s Inferno, a collection of his photographs from some of the most harrowing conflicts in the 1990s. “You’ll need a deep stomach,” he told me, and he was right. My impulse was to close the book (& I did), but the truth is that I need to see that reality.

In the wake of the double homicide in Roanoke, Virginia last month, we were left with a handful of videos and stills. Allison Parker and Adam Ward were killed on live television and the murderer recorded his own video of the events that have since been shared and shared and shared. Two publications, the Daily News and NY Post, sparked outrage when they ran stills from the body-cam video on their covers the next day. How could they be so insensitive? What a horrible editorial decision! His actions can’t be undone, but he’s left us with visual evidence that we can do something about.

Photographs, visual evidence, are the most powerful tool we have to spark dialogue or change it. They can galvanize us into action if they’re powerful enough. One photograph, and an oft-cited one, that comes to mind is Nick Ut’s photograph of Kim Phúc, otherwise known as “Napalm Girl” from the Vietnam war. In it, Kim Phúc is seen naked running from her home village after South Vietnamese forces dropped a napalm bomb on it. She was badly burned, and tore off her burning clothes. Other children are running, too, but it is the stark image of Kim Phúc mid-run with her arms held out that drove home the horrors of the Vietnam War. It helped to hasten the end of the war, which came six months later.

Graphic images have the capacity to hold our attention in a way that few other images can. The wave of videos depicting police brutality from the past year in the U.S. have brought the issue to the fore in an unprecedented way, and it’s a part of the national dialogue that will help shape the coming presidential election. With the tragedy in Roanoke, the body-cam footage puts us in the murderer’s perspective. It looks as if we’re holding the gun. With the death of Aylan, it looks as though he could be anyone’s child. In a different setting, he could be napping in a crib.

It’s easier to deal with tragedy and mayhem when we don’t have to look at it, but images like those of Aylan and the stills from the double homicide in Roanoke force us to take a hard look at reality. These photographs are seared into our collective memory, and it’s up to the rest of us to do something about them.