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The Power of a Photo
Ismail Ibrahim, NYU Florence student

October 7, 2015

283,340 pixels forced the world to pay attention to refugees escaping a war many had forgotten about. The image was absolutely shocking; depicting 3 year old Aylan Kurdi lying face down on a beach in Turkey. Aylan drowned when his family attempted to reach Greece by boat to escape the atrocities of Syria. No number of maps or statistics could have attracted the publicīs attention to the suffering of the Syrian people as dramatically as those 284,340 pixels did. One picture was able to   humanize an otherwise faceless crisis. Photographs have the ability to violently wrench a sleeping population from their hazy cloud of indifference, and force them to empathize with an issue at a human level.

The Vietnam war was one of the first major conflicts to be documented through photography. The presence of photojournalists in Vietnam, gave the public an unfiltered glimpse into the grotesque and shocking realities of war. Photographs such as  ‘General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong Prisoner in Saigon’, ’The Self Immolation of Thích Quảng Đức’, and ‘The Terror of War’ reverberated through the world.. The most iconic photos from Vietnam were not photographs of planes, bombs, or ruined villages, but  were depictions of the human suffering caused by the war. The strong anti-Vietnam War movement could arguably be attributed to the visual documentation and reporting of the war. The pictures that emerged from Vietnam were able to create a unique sense of empathy that made the trials of war seem closer to home rather than halfway across the world.

Photography has often shown itself to be more effective than written text at illuminating atrocities across the world. The abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American troops at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq was one of the most telling cases of the power of photojournalism. The Associated Press ran a report on the abuses in November of 2003, detailing the gross human rights violations taking place in Iraq. The report lacked any photographs, however, and it wasn’t until CBS ran a segment 6 months later with photographs, that the general public began to be aware of the what was happening there (Note: Due to the  graphic nature of the photographs I have not  included them, but they are easily found online). Shortly after the CBS segment was aired, major news outlets such as The Economist and The New York Times began demanding the dismissal  of Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense at the time of the torture. The photos were shocking to the American public, who expected their troops to uphold American values of honor overseas. The grotesque nature of the photos made the abuses unimaginably difficult to describe without watering down their potency. Physically viewing the humiliation in the eyes of the prisoners and the giddiness of the soldiers,  is blood curdling in a way that no written words can wholly capture; which is why photography is so powerful.  

The power of photographs lie in their ability to create empathy between the audience and the subject. Certain researchers believe that empathy was a critical tool in the evolution of Homo Sapiens, and, without it, humans beings wouldn’t hold the dominant position in nature that they currently hold. Humans have the unique capability of reflecting emotions, feeling what others feel. When the young Syrian boy washed ashore in Turkey, and when the photograph circulated, millions felt as though they themselves had lost a son. Photographs can take the particular experience of a subject and makes it universal, moving people to action.

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