Tragic photographs can change the course of history — but not always

A picture of a COVID-19 victim is galvanising conversation in Indonesia. Will it lead to lasting change?

Monday, July 27, 2020,
By Susan Ager
The body of a suspected covid-19 victim lies in an Indonesian hospital. After the patient died, ...
The body of a suspected covid-19 victim lies in an Indonesian hospital. After the patient died, nurses wrapped the body in layers of plastic and applied disinfectant to prevent the spread of the virus.
Photograph by Joshua Irwandi

The image is frightening. A corpse lies stiffly on a hospital bed, wrapped in plastic—a modern mummy. The room is dark, sterile, impersonal. No one sits with the body to mourn the life that was lost.

A suspected victim of COVID-19, the person died in an Indonesian hospital. Nurses, fearful of infection, wound plastic around the body and sprayed it with disinfectant. Now it’s utterly anonymous—physical characteristics shrouded, name and gender unknown, an object waiting to be discarded.

Photojournalist Joshua Irwandi made the image while shadowing Indonesian hospital workers as part of a National Geographic Society grant. The photograph ricocheted through the nation of 270 million people, which has been slow to fight the global pandemic.

“It’s clear that the power of this image has galvanized discussion about coronavirus,” Irwandi said from his home in Indonesia.

But is it enough to change the trajectory of the pandemic in Indonesia, where the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Tracker reported 4,665 deaths and 95,418 cases as of July 24—a toll believed to be vastly undercounted?

This sort of question arises every time a photograph seems to distill a current catastrophe. Can an image of death or suffering change public policy or popular sentiment? Even if images from the past have done so, do photographs retain this power in our image-saturated world? And if images can make a difference in the 21st century, what’s taking so long?

On the other side of the world, a photograph by Julia Le Duc provoked such questions a year ago. A young man lies face down in murky water, his child beside him in red pants, dead too, still tucked under his black T-shirt, her arm around his neck as if he were carrying her into the ocean for a refreshing swim. Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, a refugee from El Salvador, drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande into the United States with his daughter Valeria, who was not quite two.

Photographer James Rodriguez, who has documented the after-effects on Guatemalan families of Donald Trump’s Zero Tolerance policy on immigration, said not long after the photo went viral: “This is beyond what we’ve seen so far. You have a sort of crescendo, so much coverage, so many images. But then comes something like this, that pops. The head inside the T-shirt. You don’t see faces. You don’t see blood.”

“We who work on this issue hope that with the narrative, there is eventually a straw that breaks the camel’s back, to affect public opinion and impact public policy.”

Yet he and others wonder why images of “dead foreigners,” as he put it, appear far more frequently in American media than do images of dead Americans. “With all the gun deaths in the U.S., have you seen a single photo of a child killed?”

Rodriguez has two children of his own. An image like this one makes him ache with grief, as did a photograph five years ago of a limp three-year-old Syrian refugee, washed up on a Turkish beach.

To this day he remembers the boy’s first name: Aylan.

Back then, in 2015, predictions were that such a powerful image, photographed by Nilufer Demir, could change opinion about refugees, who were and remain widely distrusted and resented.

Pictures of death or suffering do become iconic, in ways that both hurt and help. Two days after the photos of little Aylan went public, then British Prime Minister David Cameron announced his nation would take in thousands more Syrian refugees.

But other news emerges after photos grab our hearts. The little girl crying in a renowned photo by Getty photographer John Moore, who was documenting family separations at the border, turned out to be just a photo of a little girl crying. Her mother picked her up two minutes afterwards, and all was well.

A year after another image of a Syrian boy became famous—he looked beaten and bloody, forlorn in an orange chair—its subject appeared on the news in Syria in support of the government. He had become a symbol of the government’s terror against its citizens, but now his hair, shaggy and dirty before, was tidy, his face pudgy and smiling. Mohamad Kheir Daqneesh, the boy’s father, criticized Syrian rebels in the TV interview, saying that he feared for his son’s safety after the image received so much publicity. “I changed Omran’s name,” he said. “I changed his haircut, so no one [would] film him or recognise him.”

As I worked on this story, I reported this to a photo editor at National Geographic. “Oh, that’s great news,” he replied. “I think about him every now and again. Good to know he’s ok.”

Images scorch us. The feelings they evoke plant themselves in our hearts like the photographs we take of our own beloveds. Can one person’s fate, captured by a camera, change the world or at least capture its grief? (See Nat Geo's best photos from this spring that reveal moments of turmoil and grace.)

'Protests all over the world'

It has happened before. In 1972, at the height of the Vietnam War, Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, Vietnamese himself and just 19, had just finished photographing a skirmish when a plane sprayed napalm.

In a 2012 interview he replayed the moment: “I saw her left arm burned and the skin peeling off her back. I immediately thought that she was going to die…. She was screaming and screaming, and I thought, ‘Oh my God.’”

His editors debated whether the photo should be sent out. The girl was naked, and they were concerned about offending readers. But one editor insisted, and newspapers around the world published it.

“The next day,” Ut said, “there were anti-war protests all over the world. Japan, London, Paris…. Every day after that, people were protesting in Washington, D.C., outside the White House. ‘Napalm Girl’ was everywhere.”

The girl survived after Ut drove her and other children to a hospital and threatened media exposure if the overwhelmed workers refused to care for them. Now a middle-aged woman, Kim Phuc calls the photographer “Uncle Nick.”

Unknown subjects

After the 2008 hurricane in Haiti, Miami Herald photographer Patrick Farrell won acclaim for an image of another naked child, this time a boy, pushing a filthy and broken baby stroller, apparently reclaimed from the muddy rubble around him. Again, one boy, leading viewers to wonder about his story, his future, and contrast it with their own.

Farrell, still with the Herald, told me in 2015 that the image was among the first published after the initial Haiti storms. It, along with others, won him a Pulitzer. “They were striking and graphic and painful to look at,” he said, “but they opened people’s eyes, especially in Miami, two hours away by plane. It brought them out of their very comfortable lives.”

More than £3 billion was pledged or donated after the earthquake. Nobody knows what happened to the boy, with whom Farrell never spoke. He believes the image is compelling because “everything is destroyed, but this kid has piled a few things in a stroller and he’s pushing it somewhere. We don’t know where.”

The face of another refugee also captured a crisis and captivated those who saw it. Photographer Steve McCurry’s image of a young Afghan girl at a refugee camp in Pakistan appeared on the cover of the June 1985 issue of National Geographic and remains etched in millions of memories: a girl with tousled hair draped in a rusty red cloth, her eyes huge and fiery with …. what? Fear? Defiance? Determination?

McCurry returned to Pakistan 17 years later to find her, worn and weary. Sharbat Gula had never seen her iconic photo. She had not been photographed since. But her blue-green eyes are recognised and remembered for having cracked open hardened hearts around the world.

Waiting for change

Photographers are inclined to believe that searing images will surely rip others’ hearts so much that they will shred old policies that hurt people so badly. Farrell was certain the image of the drowned Syrian boy would force action on the decades-old refugee crisis. But, so far, Syria remains under siege in every way, its people wounded and dying.

The crisis continues at the U.S.-Mexican border, and in the scrabbling nations south of it.

And in Indonesia, reactions to the image of the COVID-19 victim have been hostile, with the head of the government’s coronavirus taskforce questioning Irwandi’s ethics for taking the photo. In response, the nation’s photojournalism association determined that the photo met journalistic standards,

If powerful photographs can indeed change history these days, history is taking its sweet time.

Susan Ager, a freelance writer based in Michigan, has previously covered the power of photographs for National Geographic.
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