The power of an image


How a solitary image can change the way the world thinks.

Recently, the world was rocked by a single image. It was an image of three year-old Aylan Kurdi, lifeless, being carried out of the Turkish sea by a paramilitary officer.  It is an image powerful enough to make everyone stop and assess what was going on. Powerful enough to make people speak up and try and do something.

And that’s what an image can do – change things. Change your mood, change your way of thinking, change your whole perspective on life itself.

But it’s not as simple as just having a moving image to make you do this; the most powerful tool in this whole process is you. Your mind. Your imagination. The images that move us are the ones where we don’t really see the full picture (and yet a full story is told); where we’re made to think about something; where the full story is told through our interpretation of what is in front of us and how it makes us feel.

But, in essence,  this isn’t an effect that should be unfamiliar to any of us. The Aylan Kurdi image is a visceral and horrific true-life example, but we regularly consume content that aims to replicate the conceit (albeit diluted and sanitised) of creating a story by forcing the mind to bridge the gap between image and meaning. It’s what happens in between comic book panels. It’s what happens in movies. Just think of the scene in Disney / Pixar’s UP where we go from the nursery to the doctor’s office in one pan. It gets me every time. Think of the scene in 12 Angry Men when juror number 10 goes ranting and raving about ‘those people’ and, one by one, everyone else turns their back on him. All together. All united in defiance. It’s at that point you know the tide has changed and they’ll all vote ‘not guilty’. It gives me chills.

The image of Aylan Kurdi made me think of a few things. Firstly, my own children then almost instantly how that little boy’s parents must be feeling (I had seen this before hearing about his mother and older brother). The day went on and the more I thought about it, the angrier I got about it – how could this happen? It had got to me – I wanted to know more and I wanted to know if anything was being done about it.

It also reminded me of a few other images that shocked the world when they were published. Images I was either too young to understand or they were before I was born, but ones that are etched into my brain, never to be forgotten. The power of the image.

It reminded me of The Terror of War (1973). More commonly known as Napalm Girl, the photo shows Kim Phuc, running down the street, naked, after a napalm attack on her village. Her skin was melting off in strips. Her home was burning in the background. It was June 8, 1972. Ut was 21 years old. “When I pressed the button, I knew,” Ut says. “This picture will stop the war.” Seeing this for the first time in 1973 must have brought similar emotions to that of last week.

And of Tank Man (1989) when one man temporarily stopped 5 Chinese tanks following the suppression of the Tiananmen Square riots in Beijing. The world was presented with an image that showed the power that one solitary person can have on a global scale. This was more than hippies putting flowers in guns, this was sheer defiance. This was Henry Fonda saying ‘Not Guilty’ when 11 other jurors had said the opposite.

War is a common backdrop to most of these images, but a powerful image doesn’t always need that. Images like the couple kissing on the ground whilst all hell breaks loose in Vancouver, Canada and of Anna Fisher, the first mother in space, are so emotionally charged, it’s hard not to get swept up in them.

Then there are those images that are just as powerful, but have a huge story hanging to them. In The Vulture and the Little Girl (1993) we see a vulture waiting for a young Sudanise girl to die and to eat her. The photograph was taken by South African photojournalist, Kevin Carter, while on assignment to Sudan. He took his own life a couple of month later due to depression, which opens up a whole new discussion on what comes first, human suffering or the perfect shot.

This is where ethics come into play here, especially when we’re talking about these images being published round the world. Yes, the world needs to know about tragic events, but should we all have to see it? Should we have seen that little boy in his last moments? Should we have seen the chilling footage as a lunatic gunned down two newscaster last month? Do these images exploit the those who inadvertently become totems of ‘change’? Does it strip them of dignity in some way, cheapen their suffering? Or does the (potential) positive impact that an image can have – stopping a war, shifting global opinion, re-examining gun laws – justify all that?

As for the answers, I genuinely don’t know. Moral certainties are hard to come by in today’s world. But what I do know is that an image can transcend all boundaries of society; can burst through barriers of race, religion, class, creed, wealth or poverty. The picture of Aylan Kurdi has become the image of the refugee crisis and has shifted perspectives of an issue so profoundly, that not only have individuals (like me) suddenly grasped the humanity at stake, but a whole continent has been moved to action. Just one photograph.