There are images that come and go. Some images stay with us, gripping hearts more than mind, for longer than imagined. Among those that stay were images of young and old, faces strewn with simultaneous shock and relief, painted with joy and some tainted with tears. There were images of mothers hugging children, images of men gasping for air, of drenched women helped to the shore, of families crossing deserts in sandstorms, and there were images of children; a great number of children.
Today widely distributed images aren’t just frozen anymore. They are in motion and are capable of moving viewers too. They only gain frozen status once combined with thought, reflection and dash of momentary shock
Before drowned children washed up on the shores of Turkey, there were other children.
A skeletal child begging for food down on his knees as a British man nonchalantly walks by, and another child lying on the street, perhaps dead, curled with a dog lying in a similar fashion right next to him. These were images captured during the famine of 1943 that struck Bengal of pre-partition India during World War II. Some three million people died due to the famine. The grueling images surfaced decades later.
In 1965 Life Magazine devoted a series of images to depict the ‘humane’ side of the of the Vietnam war. An unforgettable image from the pictorial was of a malnourished Vietnamese child at a refugee camp, with a swollen belly and innocent droopy eyes, digging away with his plastic spoon at a can of American rations. There were other pictures too, perhaps the most moving of them all was the one with children running away from the Napalm bomb, crying and terrified.
Photojournalist Steve McCurry is best known for immortalizing the “Afghan Girl” with striking green eyes on the iconic National Geographic Magazine cover. Little known is that before he captured his most recognized work, McCurry covered the Afghan civil war for years mixing in with the natives. One of the remarkable moments he captured during this time was in 1984 in Kandahar, Afghanistan, of a father affectionately holding his son’s new prosthetic leg, as the child smiles at his father, perhaps feeling thankful for the opportunity of walking again.
‘Children of Sarajevo’, is a film which won the Oscar for best foreign language film in 2012. It is also a reality bygone. The world knew of the toll and siege that took on Sarajevo’s children. But the frames that stayed with the world were of child soldiers of the Bosnian war, playing with guns on the streets in the midst of real conflict. More than a 1,000 children are still listed as missing from Bosnia’s 1992 war.
A photographer on an assignment in Sudan once observed people of a hunger stricken village gathering around a UN plane distributing food. A toddler, emaciated and trying to reach the feeding centre was lying on the ground while a few feet behind was a preying vulture. Photographer Kevin Carter clicked a few pictures and reportedly chased the vulture away. Carter won the Pulitzer Prize for his photo in 1993. He committed suicide the following year. His final note read; “The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist…”
In 1997 a photograph made its way to Life magazine with the comment; “A group of Americans came upon this abandoned baby on a path in Fuyang and took him to a local hospital, where they were told by a staffer, you should have left it where it was.” The infant died of pneumonia, but the photo gave rise to discussion which revealed that certain stretches of China’s Yangtze River are common sites of infanticide, a result of China’s ‘One couple, One child policy’. Sadly nothing much has changed in the course of 18 years. Today, it’s not a picture of an abandoned baby, but a video of a police officer saving an infant from a toilet in Beijing that caused uproar. Yet, nothing seemed out of the ordinary in China.
Today widely distributed images aren’t just frozen anymore. They are in motion and are capable of moving viewers too. They only gain frozen status once combined with thought, reflection and dash of momentary shock. Shock however was not momentary in the year 2013 when rockets struck suburbs of Damascus, Syria. The moving pictures brought us the horrific aftermath of the attack as children lay still, some peacefully asleep others frozen in pain. Moving images also brought us frames of Palestinian fathers carrying the still bodies of infants to mass graves when Israel stepped up its ground offensive in the Gaza strip in 2014. From the Nazi camps in Germany to the Taliban attacks in a Peshawar school, countless are the occasions where children have been innocent victims of conflict. We have our own tragic story of child soldiers of a separatist war; images of violence, heartbreak and depression.
But then there are images of hope. Like that of 4-year-old Marwan, who temporarily separated from his family bravely crossed the desert to reach the borders of Jordan. All these images, both hope and desperation have splashed across magazine covers and newspapers, haunted the television with its graphic presence, shared a million times on social media and have now become iconic parts of a shared history. The question remains if these iconic images, the ones that stay are capable of real change and shape public opinion? Perhaps it’s time we answered yes.
Little Aylan Kurdi forcefully thrust the scope and magnitude of the refugee crisis into a public consciousness. There are pictures of hysterical children after being confronted with tear gas and pepper spray at the borders of Hungary. But these images weren’t as powerful as Aylan’s still body on the shore. Now, the image already pushed somewhere to a dark corner of our minds.
Despite the rate of child deaths worldwide dropping by more than half since 1990 —according to a UN and WHO report published in September, 16,000 children under the age of five still die every day. There have been little Aylans before and there shall be Aylans in times to come. But it’s time that children being iconic portraits of suffering stopped. The iconic status of the countless images should account for more than an individual prize. These images have a story to tell, hearts to inspire and lives to change. But more importantly they give humans, renewed consciousness, moments of recollection and a chance for redemption.