Do pictures of suffering people serve a purpose beyond shocking us?
As long as I live, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the name Alan Kurdi.
There’s no need to describe the image that made the three-year-old Syrian refugee known around the world – it’s indelibly inscribed in the brains of everyone that caught a glimpse of it.
Now, America is having what one news outlet described as its “Alan Kurdi moment” – a photograph of a father and daughter, reported as being Oscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter Valeria, drowned while trying to cross the Rio Grande River in Mexico into Texas.
‘Shocking’ is the only way you can possibly begin to describe the horror of the photograph, as evidenced by the numerous newspaper headlines which have incorporated the word (this article included).
The distressing nature of the photo, however, hasn’t stopped its distribution far and wide, whether that’s through traditional media outlets or on platforms like Twitter.
The Guardian’s headline on the story of the picture reads: “Shocking photo of drowned father and daughter highlights migrants’ border peril.” CNN went with: “A shocking image of a drowned man and his daughter underscores the crisis at the US-Mexico border.” The Telegraph opted for a question: “Could this shocking image of a man and his daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande bring the US migrant crisis to a head?”
And it’s that last one that really gets to the heart of the matter. Does it really require seeing pictures of dead children for action to be taken to help people? For a crisis to be brought to a head?
My instincts scream no – we should feel sympathy, and governments should take action, well before this point. But it seems an unfortunate fact of life that visual evidence has an impact that words just don’t.
Distressing images through history
This isn’t a new phenomenon; both still photography and videos have been used for years to highlight the plight of people in distress to the rest of the world. Remember the photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phuc? Her name might not be familiar, but the image of her running, naked, after a napalm bomb was dropped on her village in Vietnam, will be.
And photographs and videos from Rwanda in 1994 horrified the world, even though many governments had already known about the genocide taking place there. Former president Bill Clinton has admitted since leaving office that “we could have saved at least a third of the lives we lost” if the country, along with other Western nations, had gone in to Rwanda sooner.
They may endure in our memory and form a crucial part of a historical record, but do these images actually have any real-world impact, beyond making us feel saddened and sickened? And if seeing them doesn’t result in action, is there any need to share them, or is it just that we desire a chance to talk about something so horrible?
What was the impact of the picture of Alan Kurdi?
Before the picture of Alan Kurdi, there had been months of headlines and column pieces decrying the influx of immigrants from beyond Europe – including then prime minister David Cameron’s comments about a “swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain”. But the image of the toddler finally made the world look kindly on Syrian refugees. This is despite the fact that by the time the picture was published in 2015, the war in Syria had been going on for more than four years, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands, including children.
One study of the picture of Alan Kurdi by Paul Slovic, a leading scholar on apathy towards genocide and decision research at the University of Oregon, found that “an iconic photo of a single child had more impact than statistical reports of hundreds of thousands of deaths”. Slovic and his colleagues said in the study that the death toll in Syria was estimated to be around 250,000 at the time the picture of Alan Kurdi was published, adding: “Clearly, the statistics of a massive human catastrophe and their ‘moral rationale’ were available for people and governments to act on, but little response was evident.”
There was an immediate, tangible impact following the release of the photo – donations to the Swedish Red Cross fund for Syrian refugees increased, while many Western nations shifted their policies when it came to resettling Syrians affected by the war.
A University of Sheffield study found that the photograph had an impact on the language used online – people began talking much more about refugees as opposed to migrants.
But the effects of the picture were short-lived. Slovic and his colleagues said the image “brought much-needed attention to the Syrian war and the plight of its refugees, which resulted in short-term but important increases in individual aid and refugee policy changes in many countries”. In the four years since the picture of Alan Kurdi was published, countries have been closing their borders to refugees, and people have been comfortably electing right-wing politicians who run on anti-immigrant platforms.
The University of Sheffield study found that the change in language was also short-lived, changing when a passport belonging to a Syrian refugee was found at the scene of terror attacks in Paris in November 2013.
Dr Farida Vis, director of the Visual Social Media Lab at the University of Sheffield, said: “This prompted many UK newspapers to run a headline that swayed the rhetoric once again towards ‘defence of the borders’.” She continued that this meant the “softening of attitudes to refugees” the image had resulted in “will be to a greater or lesser extent undone”.
Will the picture of Oscar and Valeria Ramírez change US policy?
In the current climate, it seems unlikely that the photo of Oscar and Valeria Ramírez could have any impact on the crisis at America’s border, at least in terms of government action. After all, a core tenet of President Donald Trump’s campaign was the building of a wall between the US and Mexico. In 2015, while running for president, he said Mexico was sending rapists and murderers to the US. His inflammatory rhetoric has continued - in 2018 Trump said immigrant gang members were “animals, not people”.
Given the fervour of Trump fans, and the increasingly divisive world we live in – where something like the concern for women’s safety has become a partisan issue – what good can one image do? The sharing of it – particularly the way it has been used by the media outlets, many of which placed it at the top of articles so there was no way to avoid it – seems to be more about just shocking people rather than about shocking people into doing something. It’s clickbait at its absolute worst.
Is there a responsible way to show distressing images?
So where does that leave us? Should we just ignore these pictures? No, of course not. They serve as evidence of what is happening, or has happened in the world; the image of Phan Thi Kim Phuc is a crucial part of the historical record of what happened in Vietnam. And to ignore these pictures would be to ignore the suffering of people around the world, and once we do that, we begin to lose our humanity. And if we lose our humanity, we risk living in a world where we don’t care about anyone but ourselves.
But there is a way to use pictures like these responsibly, and just because they exist doesn’t mean we should feel forced into looking at them if we don’t want to. We should always remain aware, whether we’re just people using social media or whether we’re journalists or picture editors, of the distress seeing such an image without warning could do. News outlets should consider whether putting the image on homepages or setting it as the primary image so it appears when the article is shared is a good idea (it’s not), and anyone sharing on social media should think seriously before posting it into their feed (or sending them to people who haven’t explicitly asked to see them).
After all, there are real people in these pictures. People with families, people with friends. People who had hobbies, people who wanted to work hard and live a good life. But for a stroke of luck, we and the ones we love could have been those people. Our brief shock and outrage is worth nothing if after bearing witness we don’t remember that. If we don’t remember Alan Kurdi and Oscar and Valeria Ramírez. If we don’t remember that there are many more people suffering than the few we see pictures of. If we don’t continue to care long after the images have stopped being used.