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Op-eds

How pictures change the story

  • Geoff
The heartrending picture of the lifeless body of a young Syrian boy on a Greek beach, one of 12 Syrians who drowned in 2015 attempting to reach the Greek island of Kos, encapsulates the extraordinary risks refugees take to reach the West.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Jun 13, 2019

These photographs provide visual insight into situations which ordinary people would not be able to access. In addition, the internet allows these images to be distributed more widely and faster than in previous eras.

Many modern cameras also have sound recording capabilities, which adds to their power. The downside is that the internet also offers an easy platform for the distribution of doctored images for agenda-driven purposes or “fake news”.

Powerful photographs can be the centrepieces of major historical events.

On 8 June, 1972, during the Vietnam War, a South Vietnamese plane mistakenly dropped napalm on its own soldiers and civilians, resulting in an iconic photograph of that era. It moved people so much, it helped end the war. The image was a naked, burning nine-year old South Vietnamese girl, Kim Phuc, running screaming down the road towards an Associated Press photographer outside Trang Bang village, 40km northwest of Saigon. She had ripped off her burning clothes while fleeing, screaming, “Too hot! Too hot!”

The image rapidly spread around the world, becoming a form of shorthand for the atrocities of that war.

Another photograph that defined an entire moment in the history of a conflict was taken in South Africa in another June, four years later. It was the image of Hector Pieterson, taken in Soweto in 1976. Pieterson was a 12-year-old Soweto schoolboy among many other children protesting against the enforcement of teaching in Afrikaans. He was shot by police as they opened fire on the crowds. A photograph of the mortally wounded Pieterson being carried by another Soweto resident was splashed on papers around the world.

That photograph became a form of shorthand representing apartheid’s inhumanity. The anniversary of Pieterson’s death is marked next Monday, designated as Youth Day.

Before the advent of cameras, all we had were second-hand accounts to describe the experience of victims and heroes. With cameras, the drama of Kim Phuc, Hector Pieterson, and others could be brought visually to the world. Added to this essential list of such visual dramas would be the Jewish child with a Star of David on his lapel emerging from a bunker at the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 with Nazi troops behind him; or the lone man blocking the path of a Chinese tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989 after government suppression of massive student-led protests.

The new arrival in the field of photography is the quality digital camera that is now a standard feature of smartphones, which can be carried into almost any context, openly or in secret.

Cell phones have already been used as the source of serious photography by respected networks such as the BBC and others. Apart from professional photographers, everyone with a cell phone can call themselves a photographer. It’s up to the networks and public to decide on the validity of their claim.

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