Suffer the little children

Little Spinner in Mill. While working as a photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), Lewis Hine was able to document the working and living conditions of children in the United States in the early 1900’s. This particular photograph shows a “little spinner” employed by the Globe Cotton Mill in Augusta, Georgia. Her overseer was proud to say that “she was regularly employed.” Lewis Hine used his camera as a tool for social reform and his photographs have been instrumental in reforming the child labor laws of the United States. Lewis Hine/Library of Congress

(This article was first published in print in issue 18 of the Philippine Collegian on 29 November 2012. Co-written with Julian Inah Anunciacion.)

Images of babies with crushed skulls, young girls with torn limbs, and young boys half-buried in the rubble have been circulating online since the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) launched Operation Pillar of Defense against Hamas targets in Gaza on November 14.

The operation was named after an Exodus passage describing a pillar of cloud protecting the Israelites in their desert journey. The original goal of Operation Pillar of Defense was to cripple Hamas’ rocket-launching capability against Israel.

The conflict is not only a war of ideals and territory but has become a battle for world attention. Both camps utilized the Internet, specifically Twitter and Facebook, in an attempt to gain international sympathy.

Gruesome photos of dead children grace the aftermath of Israel’s attacks on Gaza. The shocking effect these images produced highlights the power of image-making in propaganda.

Poster child

Images of children are a common tool in propaganda and politics.

In 1977, American conservative Anita Bryant’s “Save our Children” campaign against the passing of anti-discrimination rights in Florida relied heavily on the idea of protecting children against the onslaught of homosexuality.

Currently, both sides of the Reproductive Health Bill camps use children in their campaigns. The Anti-RH side chose the image of a fetus, while the Pro-RH side used the image of children living in poverty. Moreover, Senator Tito Sotto recently claimed that Diane pills used by his wife in 1975 caused his son’s death. According to Bayer Pharma, Diane pills were introduced in the market in 1978, three years after the death of Sotto’s son.

Children caught in conflict or in dire social conditions have been central to some of the most iconic images in history. Lewis Hine’s photographs of child laborers working in glass factories and mills prompted changes in labor laws in the United States during the early 1900s.

The anti-Vietnam War poster entitled “And Babies” shows massacred women and children—some partly naked—in the My Lai Massacre. The campaign, according to American historian M. Paul Holsinger, was the “most successful poster to vent the outrage that so many felt about the conflict in Southeast Asia.”

Images of suffering, especially of children, aim to pique the viewers’ sympathy, arousing a shared sense of injustice. In the shared sense, these individual memories contribute to the collective memory.

Predator and Prey. A Sudanese girl crawls towards a United Nations feeding station as a vulture lurks nearby. The iconic image by South African photojournalist Kevin Carter, published by the New York Times, was described as a ‘metaphor for Africa’s despair’. The St. Petersburg Times commented: “The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene.” Three months after receiving the Pulitzer for this photo, Carter committed suicide. Kevin Carter/New York Times.

Childhood memories

Images are important in the construction of memories. As English art critic John Berger observed, the camera, as a mechanical device that enabled the capture of images, also contributed to the creation of a living memory.

Photographs that belong to private experience are appreciated and read in continuity, surrounded with meaning based on the moment from which it was removed. Meanwhile, a public photograph usually encapsulates an event, a set of appearances frozen in time, which, according to Berger “has nothing to do with the readers or with the original meaning of the event.” What it offers is information removed from lived experience, the memory of an unknowable stranger.

Inasmuch as it lacks continuity, Berger adds that “public photographs remind us of the lived reality behind the abstractions of political theory, casualty statistics, and news bulletins.” As the image of children running away from a napalm attack showed the grim reality of the Vietnam War, so do the images of dead children attest to the gravity of the recent conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Throughout the week, images of dead babies from Gaza circulated online through various social media. Public photographs that attest to the recent conflict in the Middle East have invaded spheres of socialization, thereby penetrating the realm of the personal.

Images of children are often associated with collective memories of childhood, with innocence, and with hope for the future. This is also why images of children are often used to address sentiments against war, conflict, and societal changes that threaten the peace and the status quo. When the welfare of children is threatened, it is also deemed to threaten the future of humanity.

Such sweeping generalizations and appeals to human emotion tend to misdirect the public’s understanding of certain issues. While sympathy for the unfortunate circumstances of children seems to be a valid reaction, our response to their plight should not be limited to the realm of emotion.

Save our children

Seeing the images of children and their plight, “we” are drawn into the conflict—“we,” the non-combatants, the ones “regarding their agony from a safe distance.” As American writer Susan Sontag observed, the pain of others intrigues people, if only at a safe distance—victims of tragedy are always people that they do not know. They see their pain, but they do not necessarily feel it.

Images of suffering invite the obligatory sense of sympathy and indignation. But a picture’s “visceral impact” is not its meaning, nor is it always part of the intention. It remains part of a rhetoric, and the sentiments it elicits serve strategic uses. Without the proper context, photographs could only “speak” so much on their own.

As with the images from the recent Gaza conflict, lacking context, there is the risk of mistaking the combatants with the civilians, like images of Israeli and Syrian children for Palestinians. This inevitable confusion with images has been used by both the IDF and Hamas in garnering international sympathy for their plight.

Sympathy, inasmuch as it is deemed deep and universal, prove to be inadequate. As Sontag observes, “So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence.”

On the other hand, our sense of indignation makes us question and move beyond our incapability to intervene. To fight off the impotence of sympathy, our indignation must be armed with action. To act is the only effective way to respond to what the photograph shows.

Merely looking at and sharing photos of dead babies online reduce suffering to an act of consumption, forgotten once the news feed refreshes. This fleeting nature of sharing images is in essence a failure of the public sphere of photography. Whether one acts on or shrugs off the sense of indignation brought about by shared images of suffering, Berger argues that “the issue of the war which has caused that moment is effectively depoliticised.”

Photographs, no matter how iconic they might be, have never been able to change the world on their own. With the surplus of images available for visual consumption on a daily basis, photos that were once integral to our memories fade away with the coming of new headlines, conflicts and administrations.

Yet, photos have been instrumental in arresting people’s attention to the things that matter. Images are free-floating in our minds, waiting to be understood and acted upon. These images, as with our memories, are constantly being pieced together in our struggle to remember and be remembered.

Berger, John. 1992. About Looking. New York: Knopf Doubleday.

Sontag, Susan. 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador.


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