Salvadoran migrant Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his toddler daughter, Valeria, died Sunday after being swept away by a strong current while the family was trying to cross the Rio Grande into the United States. Unknown to most of the world until this week, they are now briefly famous, a toddler in red shorts and tiny shoes, tucked inside her father’s dark T-shirt, seemingly at rest as if napping with her dad on a hot afternoon.
The intimacy of their apparent embrace gives the image its essential power. In that, it recalls the vulnerability of Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian Kurdish boy whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey in 2015. Nilüfer Demir’s picture of the boy, who seemed to be resting after play, became one of the most searing images of the European refugee and emigration crisis. Both images share elements with other photographs in which the innocence of childhood highlights the cruelty of human or natural forces, including a haunting photograph of a young Haitian girl, seemingly at prayer but in fact crushed by the weight of falling concrete during the horrific earthquake of 2010. The child looks as if he or she is doing something fundamentally childlike — napping, playing, praying — that elicits one response (warmth and sentimentality), which is then immediately subverted by a darker, sadder truth.
That double message — the innocent first take followed by the bitter second one — is a basic emotional mechanism of this genera of tragedy images. It also helps us think about how the image functions in the larger world, its power to elicit social sympathy or political change. Because these images have already broken through our own resistance to seeing pain and tragedy in the world, we imagine that they must break through the collective conscience as powerful political icons. They enter our consciousness almost by stealth and then explode, and that is how we assume they’ll work in the public square, too.
So the image gets shared on social media, and is seen repeatedly on cable television and sometimes in the pages of newspapers. As it circulates, we believe it will acquire enough force and familiarity that our political leaders will have to do something different — change policies, reverse course, revise their own understanding of the severity of a problem. For more than a century, this metaphor has been in operation behind the scenes whenever journalists, or activists, hold up photographs to the world, and say: This is a truth you must acknowledge.
The metaphor of “breaking through,” however, relies on an understanding of the human conscience that is being sorely tested at the moment, not just in the United States, but in every country where nationalism and nativist populism are creating divisions between us and them, between the rightful “folk” and the supposedly illegal outsider. The metaphor suggests that our conscience is hindered only by laziness or indifference, that if we make the effort to understand who these people are, how they died, how they probably suffered and how we would feel in their place, then the image can’t help but “break through.” The thing that needs to be broken through is a basic sluggishness in the moral apparatus, a resistance to doing the hard work of humanizing the other.
But when nationalism has successfully dehumanized the other, there is no breaking through, and people who imagine that a photographic message must assuredly be so powerful that it will touch all hearts are forced to grapple with a more confounding truth: Not all consciences operate alike, not everyone is susceptible to what seems a basic, even rudimentary level of empathy. And so, there is a paradox: We resist the idea of living in an us-vs.-them world only to find that our basic sense of “us” is already fractured. We look out at our fellow humans and can’t honestly understand how their minds work. At some level, we think, “Can’t you see what is happening in this image?” As if seeing and understanding are identical.
The photograph as an exercise of conscience requires time, effort and openness, similar but more profound than what we do when we go to the theater or look at a painting. A fully human sense of who is represented is a collaborative act, with the audience filling in details, relating elements in the representation to emotional touchstones in their own lives. This one photograph tells us very little about Ramírez and his daughter, and perhaps with all the attention it has received, we will learn more about the reality of who they were. But just as important is the imaginative reality of the viewer’s effort to sense them as humans, absolutely identical in value and dignity to any person in our most intimate circle of acquaintance. We must do what is sometimes called “ekphrasis,” a thorough elaboration of both what we are seeing and what we imagine must have taken place, filling in details, adding meaning, making connections.
Of course, one doesn’t have to do this work. Images of tragedy that arrive in a divisive political context often have an off-ramp. You may look at this photo and think that its deep message is “We are all hoping for a better life and will take extraordinary risks on behalf of those we love.” But someone else will probably say, “People shouldn’t cross borders without permission.” The drowning becomes a kind of punishment, a river stands in for ideas of human authority, and the photograph doesn’t break through anything. It merely reiterates an old and cherished belief: Bad things happen to those who break the rules.
There is a fundamental difference between these two interpretations: One requires time and effort, an act of engaged empathy, while the other is a quick judgment that reaffirms an existing sense of the world. The power of a photograph like this depends on the time we devote to it and our basic sense of who these people are. For the few hours or days that this photograph elicits chatter and argument, there will be efforts to make it an allegory of law and judgment rather than an opportunity for moral imagination and compassion.
The day after these two people perished in the Rio Grande, the president of the United States dismissed an accusation that he had sexually assaulted a prominent author and columnist in the 1990s. He used a phrase similar to ones he has used in the past to deflect similar allegations: “She’s not my type.” It is a terrible thing to say, with a specifically misogynistic meaning in the context of how men practice violence against women.
But it is a perfect summation of our new and deformed American conscience. It is pithy and dismissive, an invitation to look at people who have been victimized and see only otherness. It shuts down any understanding of trauma before empathy has begun to interrogate how trauma is felt and experienced. It is about looking without seeing, judging without understanding. For anyone who wants an off-ramp to the moral demands made by this image, this could be the universal caption: “They weren’t our type.”