Certain photos jump out at us while others seem as props or passing furniture in the warp and woof of everyday life, such as walking down Market or Walnut Streets as pedestrians parade along the sidewalk on the way to their lives, as so much product passing on a conveyor belt.
With some noteworthy exceptions.
Today’s front page New York Times photo of a little girl who had to flee her home near Mosul, Iraq because of fighting between government forces and ISIS outside the town of Badush, Iraq, captured a look that will not go away, at least for me, not with a page turn, not with the passage of time. I keep going back to it and looking into her eyes and face wondering, what must she be thinking and feeling? What was she showing the photographer (and the world)? What does that look mean?
I tried to run through my mind similar expressions I’d seen but they didn’t fit. One reminded me of heartbreak suffused with the impulse to smile but that didn’t make any sense. Another was the look of fear as in “what’s next for me and my family?” Still, I thought, did she even have a family anymore? Her mother and father are not pictured. What will happen to her now, I kept wondering. Will she have a life? What about the others similarly displaced by the war in Mosul against ISIS?
The photo editor captioned this photo “Portrait of an Aching Iraq.” I believe he or she must have felt similarly moved, maybe even transfixed by this little girl who has lived a lifetime of horror in what may be no more than her 10 years of existence while other children, 5th graders here in the U.S. or other civilized countries, are thinking about recess, or their internet games, or what they want to buy at the mall.
Visual storytelling glimpses life that text cannot or certainly not with the power and passion of the human face confronting tragedy, fear, remorse, love, adoration, or laughter. Why is that? We are image focused creatures I think. Our eyes not only see into the souls of others but allow us to register in our brains what makes us human–our capacity to feel empathy for others.
Another famous portrait of a child from that part of the world, that of a young Afghan girl taken in 1985, was taken by Philadelphia photographer Steve McCurry who had snuck into Afghanistan from Pakistan during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. She was unidentified until McCurry went back and found her in 2002. McCurry was able to get this photo in the first place when he was on assignment in 1985 in Pakistan, working on photographs of the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. He went past a tent and it was a school for girls. The teacher invited him in, and he immediately noticed one girl with piercing green eyes.
He photographed her with her hands covering her face first, and then the teacher urged the young girl to allow herself to be photographed. She removed her hands from covering her face, and he got two frames with that intense look that would appear on national and international magazine covers. Then she ran away. He didn’t see her again until he traveled back to the region, in 2002, and rediscovered her.
The famous Afghan girl with the green eyes.
Perhaps no photo captures war as the now iconic photo of the Vietnamese little girl, without clothes, screaming in horror as she is forced to flee her town in Vietnam because it was being napalmed. Her wails of fright are matched only by her stark nakedness because she had to rip off her clothes on fire from the napalm. Curiously, Facebook took down the photo someone had recently posted because of its child pornography policy. Maybe the policy makes sense, but the horrors of war transcended any such category.
She retells that photo 40 years later in the clip below.
The power of pictures and visual storytelling remains our deepest connection with others and therefore ourselves. Students and practitioners of social media would be wise to understand and appreciate this most unique trait of human behavior and communication.
New York Times front page, March 17, 2017. Photo by Reuters.