The power of an image

The image of the drowned Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi on the beach in Turkey has come to symbolize the plight of millions of refugees.

To understand how an image can inspire action and carry so much power we spoke with Alfred Hermida, director and associate professor at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism and author of the award-winning book Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters.

ResearchGate: What was your initial feeling when you saw the image of the drowned Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi?

Alfred Hermida: I heard about the image before I saw it. I did wonder whether I wanted to be exposed to what I read was a distressing image. I decided that I had a duty to see the image rather than shy away from the tragedy of the refugee crisis.

It is an upsetting image in its simplicity. In another life, this boy would have been playing on the beach.

RG: What do think the photo of Alan represents?

Hermida: The photo made the plight of thousands tangible to a Western audience. Instead of seeing images of dozens or hundreds of indistinct faces, this photo centered on one family’s tragedy and the death of one boy. It summed up the failure of the West’s policy towards Syria and the refugee crisis in a way that connected with people.

It is a photo that tugs at the heart strings, causing anyone seeing it to question how something like this could happen. The red t-shirt and shorts add a layer of innocence. They speak to the hopes of Alan and his family. And to the tragic outcome. In our mind, this boy should be running on the beach, making sandcastles, playing with his family. He should not be lying face down by the tranquil waters of the Mediterranean.

RG: Can you explain the ability of an image, like Alan, to inspire action from politicians or the public?

Hermida: One of the challenges with major international stories is communicating them in a way that is relevant to the public, to make people care about something happening far away from them. At the same time, the scale of the challenge, the complex geo-politics of the crisis in Syria, can serve to make people feel powerless to do anything. A photo like this strips away the complexity of international politics. The message is much simpler: This is the cost of inaction.

The public outcry and spread of the photo of social media points to the nature of how issues and ideas spread today. The photo makes the refugee crisis personal and emotional, and social media is deeply personal and emotional. Feelings of outrage and anger are quick to spread on social media, acting as channels for individuals to show they care and highlight what is important to them.

RG: Can powerful images, like Alan, ever contribute to a change in an individual's perceptions of a situation or process? For example, if they oppose the intake of refugees.

Hermida: A single image can help to redress public perception of a news event by reframing how the story is represented by politicians and the media. Often refugees are cast in a negative light, as a threat, as scroungers, or as people who will take away jobs. After seeing the image, an individual might think, that this boy is just like my boy. It reframes the story as a human tragedy. As a single piece of reportage, it challenges pre-existing perceptions of refugees as a faceless mass threatening the stability of Europe.

RG: Many iconic photos, including Nick Ut’s image of the young girl fleeing during the Vietnam War (among others here & here), depict children. Why are images of children so powerful?

Hermida: Images of children resonate as they capture a loss of innocence. They represent the sense of children caught up in something much bigger for which they bear no responsibility. It is hard to blame the victim when that victim is a child caught up in the actions of adults.

RG: Are there any other notable characteristics that iconic war related images share?

Hermida: One image that sticks in my mind was the toppling of a massive statute of Saddam Hussein in Firdausi Square in April 2003. The photo became emblematic of the perceived US victory in the Iraq war. In reality, it was a relatively minor and unimportant event. But it was laden with symbolic value that resonated with an audience that wanted to hear a message of victory. It was an instance of how a photo of one event came to represent “Mission Accomplished”.

RG: German paper Bild removed all of its photos to protest people complaining about its use of the photo of the drowned Syrian boy. Do you think journalists have a responsibility to show the reality of a situation by publishing images depicting death and suffering?

Hermida: Journalists have an ethical responsibility to their audiences. They should avoid the gratuitous use of graphic images and instead have a strong editorial rationale for exposing audiences to upsetting photos or video. In this case, there is a case to be made that the journalist should not shield the audience from the truth, however uncomfortable or distressing that truth may be. The question is whether publishing graphic content is in the public interest. In this case, the photo of Alan Kurdi deserved to be seen and published.

bild

The question becomes far more complex in deciding where to publish the photo. The media tend to warn audiences of graphic images so that individuals can choose whether or not to view them. This becomes impossible if the photo of Alan Kurdi is on the front page.

A similar dynamic is at play on social media. As this image spread on social media, it started popping up in people’s Facebook and Twitter feeds. They saw it, whether they wanted to or not. It means that we all have a responsibility to consider the impact of sharing distressing photos like this one. Everyone is the media now.