Cecil Beaton buoyed spirits during the London Blitz with an image of a wide-eyed girl in a hospital bed, clutching a crudely made doll. But we have seen even worse: children covered in the dust of earthquakes, stalked by vultures, bloodied by bombs.
Children are always innocent, and so they are compelling subjects when a war or political situation is complicated. They are also not quite fully vested members of society, which makes it somehow more acceptable to exploit their images. In Nick Ut’s 1972 photograph of a girl fleeing a napalm attack in Vietnam, the child is naked, which would not be incidental to the image if the victim was an adult. The children in the Syrian videos are held and manipulated by older hands, pulling at the flesh around their glassy eyes; the impact of this medical objectification would be even more horrifying if they were adults.
For some reason — perhaps because they are in our care, we instinctively believe they belong to us — it doesn’t seem quite as invasive of a child’s privacy to picture her covered in blood and crying, as Getty Images photographer Chris Hondros did in 2005 in Iraq, when he photographed 5-year-old Samar Hassan after American soldiers shot up her family’s car, killing both her parents.
But these images are often so deeply emotional and volatile that their power is ephemeral. One famous 1904 photograph of a man from Congo mourning his child is particularly poignant. He is seen in profile, sitting on a low ledge, contemplating a small, severed hand and foot, all that remains of his daughter after she was killed, dismembered and cannibalized by armed agents of a Belgian rubber company. It was a powerful image, disseminated by missionaries who sought to indict the colonial regime of King Leopold II of Belgium. Today it seems melodramatic.
The power of Ut’s horrifying photograph of Kim Phuc screaming as she runs down a Vietnamese road is undiminished. But the image has become so famous that it is compartmentalized in the category of “icon,” felt as a powerful aesthetic object but disconnected from the history — from the American napalm — it contains. Four decades later, it reads like a scene from a pageant of generic historical horrors, not a document of a particular war and a particular atrocity.
We often credit images such as Ut’s with changing the course of public opinion. But his photograph came late in the American people’s reassessment of Vietnam, with the Paris peace talks already underway. Images of suffering don’t necessarily forge popular attitudes ex nihilo; they catalyze an already gathering consensus.
Images of dead children are so excruciating that we are now well-trained to short-circuit our emotional responses, to move from horror to suspicion to indifference. The suffering of Israeli and Palestinian children is so fraught that it’s tempting not to look. The debate over who owned the bomb that killed BBC journalist Jehad Mashhrawi’s 11-month-old son — the Israelis or the Palestinians — neutered the impact of one of the most powerful images of 2012. That photo, and the controversy surrounding it, demonstrate why a foreign policy based on reaction to powerful images would be dangerous, inconsistent and probably hypocritical.