Two images, two eras: The power of the photograph

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The pictures of the child were horrific, wrenching to look at, impossible to ignore. There she was, a nine-year-old girl on a dirt road, screaming, naked, her skin seared and sheared by napalm. The village of Trang Bang, the girl's home, was lost in a bank of chemical-fuelled smoke and flame, the result of an attack from a South Vietnamese pilot. The photo of the girl, Kim Phuc, was taken in June of 1972 by the Associated Press photographer, Nick Ut. It won him a Pulitzer Prize and was the World Press Photo of the Year that year -- the year of Grease, Abba and the birth of the arcade game, Pong. It was also credited with helping bring an end to the Vietnam War.

In its time it was as gut wrenching as last week's image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, dead in the surf on a Turkish beach after a boat carrying his family sank trying to escape Syria for Greece.

But the image of Kim Phuc made its war-altering impact via traditional print media. The image of Aylan was on many front pages of newspapers worldwide last week too, but it was seen more often by viewers who came across the image on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

In 1972, some papers refused to run the image of the naked Kim Phuc, some because of its graphic nature, some because of the nudity. Even the New York Times wrestled with its nudity ban, but relaxed it because of the news value of the haunting photo.

Then U.S. president Richard Nixon thought the image was a fake, long before Photoshop but not too late for a single photograph to tarnish a leader's carefully burnished reputation.

In Canada the image of Aylan Kurdi, reinterpreted by somber political cartoonists and repeated on site after site in the latter half of last week, wrought its own political fallout.

Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander suffered an excoriation by the CBC's Rosemary Barton over the Conservatives' response to the Syrian migrant crisis. Alexander came off like a Conservative pitbull, full of bluster and balderdash -- whatever diplomacy and statesmanship he learned as an ambassador beat out of him by a party steeped in ideology and talking points.

The clip of his baseless invective was towed through social media waters behind the Aylan images. Alexander had to stop his campaigning to do damage control for a party that had its true colours exposed in a way Nixon could only have imagined in a paranoid fever dream.

The short-term impact of the image, in Canada, was substantial. It has made our treatment of immigrants, of the Other, a campaign issue. But, another photograph, also shared relentlessly on social media, also comes to mind as, perhaps, a cautionary tale.

A few weeks back, photos of a dead lion, Cecil, and a crowing dentist flooded Facebook. The hue and cry over the killing of a beloved and protected lion by a wormdicked tooth jockey resonated loud and long, like an echo in a concert hall. But, a couple of days ago, the dentist, Walter Palmer, announced that, unrepentant, he would be back to work this week, unbowed, and seemingly unbroken.

And, we need to also consider that all the pictures of dead Palestinian children in Gaza don't seem to have had a lasting impact on that conflict. And, to be fair, a lot of Israeli children were killed in that conflict, but often not in ways that lend themselves to be photographed.

Whether the pictures of Aylan will be remembered as more akin to those of Cecil than of Kim Phuc is a question that only time and distance will answer. Worldwide, it has opened borders and hearts. Here at home it's only bred political crocodile tears and talking points. Perhaps, in a few months, like the cowardly lion killer, the Conservatives will return to work, enabled by short memories and distracted voters.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, here.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Ferran Jordà/flickr

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