My wife and I had been discussing the overwhelming power of imagery recently. This isn’t unusual given that she is a writer and filmmaker, but the intensity of the conversation was driven by recent images that tell emotional stories about divisive social issues.
Images You Can’t Ignore
It was no surprise when she sent me the screenshot above that had been posted to Facebook by her friend who now edits The Independent. I’d seen similar images on Twitter and I was shocked by - but supportive of - Save the Children’s decision to post heartbreaking photos to social media.
Of course, this is not unique to the refugee crisis in Europe. Gun-sense campaign Everytown immediately posted a video of the on-air killing of a journalist and cameraman in Virginia. They later removed it when it became clear the killer was seeking publicity through the murders.
On the Conservative side, anti-choice activists have been trickling out deceptively edited videos of fetuses and fetal parts. Their hope is that vivid images create a strong emotional response against abortion in general and Planned Parenthood in particular.
The aim is to shock viewers with the physicians’ callous attitudes toward disembodied fetal parts and to expose the blood-and-guts nature of their work. The campaign, masterminded by 26-year-old anti-abortion crusader and “proud millennial” David Daleiden, is meant to let us in on the fact that abortion is disgusting.
-- NY Mag
In all the examples mentioned, they are right. The images do create a physiological response in all of us. It immediately moves the debate from reason to emotion, from the head to the heart. A single image is far more powerful than a thousand words and the exponential power of social media means that one image can become one thousand in minutes. Should organizations highlight and share such images knowing how they raise emotions and tap into our most primal selves?
A War of Images
The Independent has a respected history of stepping out and publishing graphic photos and telling the stories that challenge our safe version of reality. My first encounter with similar overwhelming images was when I began studying the Middle East and Balkan wars in the '90s and was exposed to Robert Fisk, the longtime Middle East correspondent for the The Independent. His writings and accompanying photos gave me a glimpse of the price of war I hadn’t been allowed to see by U.S. media. For once, I understood the outrage at phrases like “Collateral damage.”
The second Iraq War was a battle of images. The Bush White House carefully managed “embedded journalists” guiding them to the scenes they wanted portrayed and forbidding photos of death, even banning the publication of any pictures of soldiers' coffins. From the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein to the “Mission Accomplished” aircraft carrier, we were fed a diet of images meant to evoke patriotism, liberation and righteous strength.
Other images leaked out and shattered our crafted reality by showcasing torture, chaos and death.
What is the point of rehashing the well-catalogued image wars of the last decade? We campaign to change attitude and beliefs and ultimately the decisions made by individuals and our leaders. These are battles of ideas and images are powerful and destructive bombs. They are dropped in the midst of our standard debating frames and challenge what we perceive to be true with what we actually see. They force hardened partisans to examine and sometimes dramatically change their beliefs and the actions that follow from those beliefs. Most importantly, they redefine our language -- "Migrants" become "People" and statistics become Aylan Kurdi.
Propaganda is a dirty word, but we are absolutely in the midst of a perpetual propaganda war. We are engaged in a war of ideas with the goal of changing people and policies. To campaign is to engage in propaganda, which is not to say that the propaganda is necessarily anathema to "Truth."
It isn't coincidence that Humans of New York photographer, Brandon Stanton, is in Iran while the U.S. debates pursuing war or peace with that country. While it may have been an authentic and honest response, Obama's comment on a Humans of New York Iran portrait was also tactical.
We shouldn’t let our fear of being labeled "manipulative" keep us from showing the world both the hope and the horror we witness as individuals and organizations.
The Antidote to Inertia
The great enemy of any attempt to change men's habits is inertia. Civilization is limited by inertia.
-- Edward Bernays, Propoganda, 1928
Campaigners can be a cynical lot. We see firsthand the chaos caused by "Saviors" who jump to collect books for children without realizing they are written in the wrong language. We witness tarmacs overflowing with donated goods when money is really needed. Deep down we know that suffering, inequality and catastrophic climate change will continue unabated without radical policy change and a drastic change to our economic system. Our efforts at "relief" are mere bandaids...drops in the ocean.
Over 2,000 people have died crossing the Mediterranean this year. Tragically, this boy was not the first to wash up on a beach and he won't be the last. For some reason, this image along with others this week stuck with us.
This photo captured us and challenged our inertia. Perhaps it's because unlike the complex war without end in Syria, we can do something about this crisis. Our sorrow and rage can be channeled in very tangible ways within our respective political and geographic borders.
These images of people suffering, children dying and shameful anti-immigration protests have caused friends and colleagues to act. Activists have returned to their roots. Our friend and collaborator, Nina Hall, swam the Mediterranean in solidarity with refugees. Career campaigners we know have been organizing money, food and supplies for refugees stuck in camps. Aid workers, sadly familiar with the death and destruction of conflict and crisis are thoughtfully Tweeting the picture and hoping it breaks through calloused hearts in the same way it has their own. For once, we are moving.
Images have forced us to act and changed attitudes. Propaganda is defeating inertia.
A thousand words.