The power of an image

Humans are visual animals and we believe that we are able to understand complex ideas with just one image. Unfortunately, this isn´t true.

The picture taken of a 3 year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi found washed ashore on a Turkish beach in September 2015, changed the global discourse on the refugee crisis in a matter of hours. Aylan and his family were running away from a country devastated by a war. Looking for a better life, Aylan, together with his brother, died. The image was shared and spread rapidly on social media having a deep emotional impact to people all around the world.

While the picture that shook up the world was taken in 2015, the war in Syria started already in 2011. Since the beginning of the war, there have been 207,000 civilian casualties, of which 25,000 were children. Since 2014, 15,000 refugees mainly from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Nigeria have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. Last August, in just a three-days period, more than 200 refugees died at the sea.

What made Aylan’s death so powerful in influencing the global discourse? The picture of a toddler boy washed ashore tells a personal story that evokes our deepest emotions including shame, anger, frustration and also kindness and empathy. Images have a potential to raise strong feelings, shared by people all over the world, in a remarkably short time frame. In the case of Aylan’s picture, politicians talked about the need to protect refugees running away from war-torn countries and just wanting to have a better life.

In history, we have tended to perceive images of the world as a neutral source of information on which we can rely.

Human beings are visual animals. We rely on our visual perception to make sense of the reality surrounding us. We believe we are able to understand complex ideas with just one image. Is it really true? Are images a neutral source of information that we can rely on in making sense of the world? A text or a speech can be easily analysed to find out the writer’s or speaker’s standing point. With a picture, it is harder to be aware of the bias. It is challenging to identify an agenda behind a picture shared in social media or newspapers.

In history, we have tended to perceive images of the world as a neutral source of information on which we can rely. However, in our modern society images are constantly used to influence our thoughts. They are published by actors with agendas. It is difficult to be aware of the intentions behind a picture as we tend to see an image as a neutral source of information. While a text or a speech can be easily analysed to find out from which point of view the writer or speaker stands, with a picture it is hard to be aware of the bias, it is challenging to identify what is the agenda behind a picture shared on social media or newspapers.

The strength of a picture is the capacity to raise emotions that can fill us with joy or sorrow instantaneously. Pictures can bring similar feelings to people from different cultural or language backgrounds and they make us react quickly using a single voice. On the other hand, emotions raised by images have also their deficiencies. While emotions affect us quickly, they also tend to fade out promptly. Three weeks after Aylan’s photo, donations to the Swedish Red Cross had gone up by 55 %. Few weeks after that, the donations were again on the normal level. When Aylan’s picture started to vanish from people’s minds, Europe chose to strengthen border security rather than welcoming refugees. Nowadays, the access to Europe is more difficult than ever before, refugees are still dying in the Mediterranean Sea while Europe turns a blind eye and wars are still going on. In 2018, 559 people sank in the Mediterranean Sea.

While emotions affect us quickly, they also tend to fade out promptly.

While emotions make people react quickly, in order to make a long-term change, there is a need for a more rational discussion. We need to develop a long-term discourse based on rational and critical thinking rather than to be carried away by short-lived emotions evoked by pictures.

Martinez Madrid on luokanopettaja, joka on muuttanut Espanjasta Suomeen 5 vuotta sitten. Hän on työskennellyt sekä Haitilla, Ugandassa että Suomessa opettajana. Martinez Madrid kirjoitti artikkelinsa osana Maailma liikkeessä -kurssia.