Powerful photos that changed path of history
The plight of the little Syrian boy shows how pictures leave their mark on history, writes Kim Bielenberg
Published 05/09/2015 | 02:30
The old saying in publishing tells us that a picture is worth a thousand words.
Judging by the response to this week's harrowing photo of the drowned three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the right picture at the right time can be worth an awful lot more.
The pen may be mightier than the sword, but sometimes it is the camera lens that stirs politicians to action.
The sight of the limp body of the Syrian boy on a beach in Turkey left a much deeper imprint than any number of articles, news bulletins, and hand-wringing appeals from UN officials.
He had drowned as his family tried to cross from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos. What would have happened if he had not been photographed? He would have been just another number.
It was the mundane details that made the emotional impact: the straps on the tiny shoes; the t-shirt and shorts that could have been worn by any three-year-old in Ireland or elsewhere; and the anguished look on the face of the Turkish guard as he carried him away.
Within hours, politicians who had previously seemed cold or indifferent to the plight of Syrian refugees, were forced to make a declaration of intent to accept the victims of war.
The well-tuned political antennae of populist politicians like Enda Kenny and David Cameron may have previously convinced them to resist any large-scale arrival of refugees.
But with Aylan's image flashed around the world, within a matter of hours both leaders came under pressure; the emotional response of the public forced them to change their tune.
Not since the 1972 photo of nine-year-old Vietnamese girl Kim Phuc and other children fleeing in terror from a napalm attack, has an image of a child seared itself so deeply into public consciousness.
According to some accounts, the sheer horror of that photo - the result of an accidental bomb attack on a village - helped to highlight the grim futility of the Vietnam War, and helped to bring about its end.
The 52-year-old Kim Phuc now lives in Toronto, and as a younger woman struggled to come to terms with her iconic status.
But she now takes the view that if that moment had not been frozen in time by a photographer, the bombing - like other wartime terrors - would have been lost to history.
The availability of such horrific photos, increasingly common in the Internet age, leaves editors in a quandary.
Most decided this week that, on balance, it was better to show the reality of the refugee crisis than rely on sanitised accounts that too often rely on numbers rather than real personalities.
It was a photo as much as any written account that conveyed the true horror of Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972, when British troops shot dead 13 innocent civilians.
The picture shows the Derry curate Father Edward Daly cowering and waving a blood-stained handkerchief as he leads a group carrying the mortally wounded 17-year-old Jackie Duddy after the teenager was shot.
Father Daly had been standing next to the victim when he was gunned down, and eventually administered the last rites.
The priest has said since he would never have become a bishop if the iconic picture of him that day had not been published.
More importantly, the image of Father Daly and the television footage brought the Northern conflict into living rooms all across the world.
It damaged the reputation of British troops and perhaps helped convince more enlightened elements in the British establishment that a violent approach would only be counter-productive.
Photographic evidence may seem conclusive, but that does not mean it is not sometimes controversial.
Few images in the 1990s had such a deep impact as the picture of Fikret Alic behind barbed wire at a Bosnian Serb detention camp.
The photo showed Alic in an emaciated, skeletal state at the camp at Trnopolje.
It exposed the campaign of genocide by the Serb military regime and the scene was likened to a Nazi concentration camp during the holocaust.
After the photo was published all around the world, some commentators claimed it was faked.
But ITN and its reporters were vindicated when they won an apology - after a libel action in the British courts.
The most powerful news photos usually focus on the plight of an individual, rather than a crowd.
Thousands of students may have huddled in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, but it is the unknown figure known as "Tank Man" who is most remembered.
As a column of tanks tried to move, he had manoeuvred himself to obstruct them, while nonchalantly carrying shopping bags.
'Time' Magazine included the "Unknown Rebel" in its list of Most Important People of the Century.
Tank Man may have been celebrated around the world, but did his brave stance do anything other than tarnish the image of the Chinese dictators in Beijing?
They are still in place and Western leaders continue to kowtow to them.
Sometimes it is the filmed footage rather than the still photograph that makes the big impact.
After Bob Geldof saw Michael Buerk's distressing reports about starving children in Ethiopia on the BBC in 1984, he was moved to create Band Aid.
The photos of the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001 just as the second plane struck showed how still images still have the power to shock even when there is plenty of film footage.
This week it seemed like the photo of Alayn Kurdi's body would finally prompt Europe's leaders to take action. But we will only know in a few months' time, when the emotional response to the photo has died down, whether the impact of this image forces them to provide a home for Syria's refugees.