Images certainly can be much more compelling than mere words. But like words, how images are used and when they are used are opportunities for manipulation.

The photograph is unnerving. One cannot look at it without it breaking your heart. It is the sort of image that sticks in your mind forever and haunts you day and night. You can’t shake the feeling that this sort of tragedy should be avoided at all cost. You think, rather you feel: Nothing is worth this price. Nothing! The date is June 8, 1972. The photo is of a young nine-year-old Vietnamese girl fleeing her village which has just been napalmed by U.S. military jets. It is one of the most famous photos ever taken. Iconic, heartrending, courageous, the photo brought the horrors of the Vietnam War into our living rooms and seared our psyches with remorse and pangs of guilt.

Words can only do so much to convince one that something is going terribly wrong; a photograph is so much more vivid, so much more intimate and tangible. And in a sense a photograph cannot be debated or misunderstood in the same way that words can be. Often there is no nuance or subtlety to it: A visual is what it is. An objective reality; an indisputable fact that cannot be refuted or denied; nothing less and nothing more. At least, that is what the media would like us to believe. At the time the Vietnam napalm photo was taken—and still now—I thought that photo was worth a thousand words in explaining the madness of that war, but even back then I knew it was biased. It was not just a reporting of facts; that photo had an agenda.

Images certainly can be much more compelling than mere words. But like words, how they are used and when they are used are opportunities for manipulation and the promotion of (or opposition to) a particular policy or program. In fact, a photograph can be far more manipulative and devious for the very reason that it appears to be a singularly clear image of a very muddled and complex reality. The truly dangerous thing about images is that it is difficult to argue against them. They are, after all, merely snapshots of reality and, therefore, are seen too often as purely objective. But what is shown, and when and how it is displayed, are often subjective and biased decisions.

For example, the horrific napalming of Vietnamese villages was no more devastating to that country than the firebombing of German cities during World War II was to Germany. Tens of thousands of children were incinerated in Dresden and elsewhere, but World War II was the “good war” and so photos of charred human remains and burning flesh never made it to even the back pages of any American newspaper, whereas the Vietnam War was largely opposed by the media and so such photography was not only allowed, but heralded as heroic and honest. It is true that media censorship rules during World War II were far more stringent than during the Vietnam War and societal standards of propriety were also markedly different, but those factors alone cannot fully explain when the media chooses to publish graphic photographs. This reluctance to publish graphic depictions of violence, commonplace during World War II, has been equally true of more recent military escapades, such as the NATO bombing of Serbia during our air campaign in the early Nineties. The media largely supported our destruction of that country’s infrastructure in the name of religious and ethnic harmony, so images of slaughtered children had no place in our newspapers and TV news shows.

So now we come to the present day and the widespread media effort to castigate a heartless President and condemn a ruthless policy against illegal immigration. The recent photograph of the young father and little daughter face down, side-by-side, in the water is devastatingly heartbreaking. No words are used, because words can be controversial and words can even dilute the searing horror of the image. Words are also more easily suspected of bias. It is far harder to detect that a photo can be biased because, after all, most people see photography as a neutral medium and that it is the media’s duty to inform the public of terrible events. Unless, of course, it is not an issue that the media wants to promote. Can one ever imagine the media publishing a photo of a bruised and beaten young woman who has barely survived a physical attack by an illegal immigrant? Most people, including myself, would argue vociferously that such an image is biased and unfair because nearly all immigrants are peaceful and law-abiding. Photos of the victim would be attacked as crass exploitation and as racist and as truly injurious to the generally good reputation and decency of the immigrant community. But those same charges of crass exploitation are just as legitimate when leveled against the publication of the photo of the drowned father and daughter because the publication itself suggests that this is a common and inevitable consequence of heartless policies designed to stem the flow of people who are merely seeking a better life. Yet, in reality, drownings among those seeking to enter the United States illegally are far more rare than violent crimes committed by illegal immigrants, but the media does not bother to provide us a running tally of crimes committed because that is not part of the media crusade against a President who admittedly has failed miserably to explain why his policies are best for the country.

Of Plato, Poets, and Photographs

There will be few, if any, articles complaining about the publication of the photo of the drowned father and daughter. No one wants to be seen as heartless and indifferent to human suffering. Besides, most believe that publishing the photo is just telling it—showing it—like it is. And anyone who objects is too indifferent or too squeamish, or in denial about the brutal consequences of an “evil” immigration policy. Or worse, to object to its publication would be seen as trying to limit the scope of the First Amendment.

But the publication of the photo itself is not what is most objectionable. Rather, what is truly offensive is the media’s refusal to see its own bias and acknowledge its efforts to manipulate the public. For example, a few months ago my son’s freshmen class was shown a horrible video of injuries inflicted during car accidents. They were so graphic that he had bad dreams about severed heads and broken bodies for several nights, but it was worth the trauma if it keeps him and other young drivers safe. But why aren’t those photos of crushed bodies and decapitations shown in newspapers each time there is a serious car accident? Why don’t we see the real consequences of bad driving to instill more careful driving in our public? Lives might be saved if each car dealer had to provide a brochure of mangled bodies with each purchase of a new car. But the media is not interested in destroying the car industry, nor is the public riven with doubt about the utility of using cars.

In The Republic, Plato suggests banishing poets from his ideal society. It’s easy to disagree with such an outlandish proposal, but his reasoning has some validity: Poets and their poems appeal to the emotional and sentimental as opposed to the rational mind. One cannot argue against emotions. Nor can one take differing sides on the genuine horror of death and destruction. What is true of poems is perhaps even more true of photos. As Plato would explain it: The poem/photo “feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up; she lets them rule, although they ought to be controlled, if mankind is ever to increase in happiness and virtue.”

In the end what we should be asking is this: What has the photo accomplished in advancing a rational dialogue about immigration policy? What purpose has its publication served? We can all agree that the event photographed was a horrible tragedy, but what could be done to prevent all such incidents? I can think of only two equally ludicrous solutions. Open the borders completely, allowing unlimited access, and building bridges with high railings across the Rio Grande while deploying a fleet of rescue vessels to ensure safe passage for all. Or, just as absurdly, clamp down completely on allowing anyone to cross the border, constructing a massive wall with minefields and armed sentries every ten meters. Both solutions would preclude most drownings, but are as useless and senseless as the publishing of that photograph.

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The featured image is “The Real Me,” by Ahcraf Baznani and is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0.

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