Lasting impact

reminds us that strong images can change minds, but not always politics


One of the biggest clichés that one can think of is that a picture is worth a thousand words but how true is this? One photograph seems to be proving that this is indeed the case.
Recently the world has been forced to reconsider its position regarding the crisis in Syria because one photo came to light, the photo of Aylan Kurdi, a young Syrian boy who lost his life trying to reach Europe with his family.

The photograph of Aylan is by no means the first to cause such media uproar. One need only have a limited understanding of history to think of others; the protestor in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square and the small children running from a napalm attack in Vietnam are perhaps the most obvious examples. In both cases the stark reality of what was happening in China and Vietnam was transmitted to the rest of the world and led to high profile condemnation of the actions taking place. Their impact was incredible but perhaps not in the political manner that Aylan has appeared to be.

In the case of the individual at Tiananmen Square known only as Tank Man, his photograph went on to symbolise nonviolent protests while also creating many questions for the Chinese government to face . The largest of which was what had happened to the man? Was he killed? Or did he escape? To this day no one knows the fate of Tank Man. However, what is clear is that he did not change political actions towards China. Foreign powers may have condemned the action but no intervention was made and the topic remains taboo in China even now, 25 years after the event.

The case of the children in Vietnam is slightly different. Its effect on political change was important but was not as instant as Aylan has appeared to be. The picture was taken in 1972 towards the end of the 20 year conflict but by no means did it change US foreign policy in Vietnam immediately. The image was significant in that it became the most striking and memorable in a public opinion backlash against the war that had been growing, especially in the US, for a long time. The increased media presence and coverage of the war had been one of its many downfalls and had steadily turned political feeling against the conflict. Several months later the US signed the Paris Peace Accords which was to end US action in Vietnam. Kim Phuc, the young girl in the image has since become a UN goodwill ambassador and lives in Canada.

All three images proved important in changing people’s opinions in some way, but why? Perhaps the most suitable solution to this question is to think of what a photograph supplies that the written word cannot. A photograph doesn’t need any specific skills to translate what is being said and so is immediately available to an international audience. A photograph is however, relatable. People can look at it and wonder ‘what would I do if that boy was my son?’ , ‘how would I feel?’. It brings out compassion in a way that a document cannot. This effect has been amplified because his image has circulated around the world at a speed that could not have been thought of even 25 years ago with the photograph of Tank Man.

As far as people’s actions are concerned images like that of Aylan Kurdi will always produce a response that can never be matched by the written word; the personal touch that cannot be easily replicated. When it comes to political actions photographs can be important, but this very much depends on the situation in which they are taken. They may well prove themselves to be the catalyst for action but can just as easily become a symbol of wrongdoing; the response can only be subjective.

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