My Fellow Citizens,
On any given day of our digital lives, photos wash over us. We scroll; we text; we snap; we pin.
Few of us have any idea of how many photos we carry around on our phones. In 2015, The New York Times reported on the exponential growth in the number of photos we take. They predicted there would be 1.5 trillion photos taken in the year 2017. Smartphones would take nearly 80% of those photos.
Is it still possible for a photo to achieve “icon” status? When we refer to the power of a photo, we discuss it as though it belongs alongside the most familiar photos of our history. This status implies that we will one day be able to refer to the photo by one name and know that we all see the same image in our mind. Iconic photos of the past have helped us see:
Too often they have to disrupt our complacency. The photos make a tragedy too real for us to look away. These images find their permanence because they are impossible to forget.
- Our potential. Think of Apollo 8’s “Earthrise” or “Tank Man” in Tiananmen Square.
- Breakthroughs, when our future seems to shift. Imagine the first x-ray in 1895 or the Hubble Telescope’s “eXtreme Deep Field.” (Bonus: Have you seen “Brainbow?”)
The photo of Óscar Alberto Martinez Ramírez and his daughter on the banks of the Rio Grande is one of these tragic images. Every activist, journalist, and political observer shared the image this week. Sadly, this picture is not the first image of the trauma happening at our southern border. In 2017, photographer John Moore captured a much-shared picture of a toddler crying while Border Patrol searched her mother. A 2018 headline from The New York Times explains, “She became the face of family separation. But She’s Still with Her Mother.”
As we contemplated the picture of Ramírez with his daughter, we also had to recall another photo that had an impact. Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian refugee, drowned when a boat capsized and his small body washed up on the Turkish coast. In 2015, that photo brought attention to the refugee crisis, galvanized donations to the Red Cross, and even opened up European borders to refugees.
The images from the southern border of the U.S. get attention. The question is this: Can these images still change our politics?
In a thoughtful essay for The Washington Post, Phillip Kennicott explains how these images work to engage us in political questions we had been content to overlook. When we see an image, we work with the photographer and the photo to complete a process he calls “ekphrasis.” We each take on the work of elaborating “both what we are seeing and what we imagine must have taken place, filling in details, adding meaning, making connections.”
We fill in the missing details with “emotional touchstones” from our own lives. Today, there is a disruption in this process—the rise of nationalism. Kennicott explains two different approaches to interpreting these gut-wrenching photos:
“One requires time and effort, an act of engaged empathy, while the other is a quick judgment that reaffirms an existing sense of the world... For the few hours or days that this photograph elicits chatter and argument, there will be efforts to make it an allegory of law and judgment rather than an opportunity for moral imagination and compassion.”
It may not sound like it but there is hope in this formulation. By understanding how these photos might work differently in our polarized lives, we can change our exceptions of these photos and our fellow citizens. We know that these images no longer communicate a single message. We can now pick up the work of interpreting what we see and why it matters.
When we encounter these photos, we receive a reminder to do more than contemplate our own sense of a shared responsibility for humanity. We need to express what we believe is at stake in what we decide to do next as a political community. This development is a invitation to step out beyond all the assumptions, our own and others.
To connect with the power to change the world, these images need more than an extra share. To make an impact, they need us to actively engage our best ideas of who we want to be.
Let's keep taking about who we want to be,