Pictures can change the world. There seemed to be little sympathy in Europe for refugees dying in the Mediterranean until images of the tiny body of Alan Kurdi, drowned as his family tried to reach Kos, impacted on hearts and minds last summer. The brutal death of one child can reawaken the conscience of a continent, thanks to the immediacy of a camera.
So why are the devastating pictures coming out of Madaya in Syria not having a similar impact? Photographs from this besieged city depict the stark reality of mass starvation. Children with barely covered ribs gaze at the camera. Emaciated corpses lie unburied. Yet the shocking visual evidence has not yet shaken the conscience of the world. It is just another sad story in the news.
It makes you wonder what it takes to project an image so deeply into the souls of strangers that it can change history. Pictures do have the power to shake us out of our passivity but this is not always so. The truth is that it does not happen often. The lightning of compassion strikes rarely.
The pictures coming out of Madaya are reminiscent of Don McCullin’s photographs of the victims of the Biafra war. In Biafra in 1968, as in Madaya at this moment, people were starving not simply because of drought or crop failure but as a direct consequence of war. McCullin was there to cover the war for the Sunday Times Magazine and he shocked the world with pictures of children visibly dying of hunger.
How much difference did McCullin’s pictures actually make? Before his and other images revealed that people were starving, the Nigerian civil war had not seized world attention. The emergence of these gut-wrenching images in summer 1968 led to a huge uproar of moral outrage in Britain and massive humanitarian campaigns by Oxfam and Save the Children. In France, the crisis led to the creation of Doctors Without Frontiers. The war itself went on – but images of Biafra did at last make the old colonial powers acknowledge Africans as fellow human beings and accept a duty of compassion, periodically rekindled by such pictures as Kevin Carter’s 1994 image of a Sudanese child apparently stalked by a vulture.
Long before McCullin went to Biafra, the great US photographer Walker Evans used the camera to campaign for a better world. Evans went to Cuba in 1933 to expose the crimes of its dictatorship and from 1935 to 1938 took a series of pictures of the victims of rural poverty during the Great Depression lodged themselves into the collective consciousness. Evans made America’s poor visible to America’s rich. Did his truth telling make a difference? His pictures provided powerful emotional arguments for Rooseveldt’s New Deal and changed America’s sense of its own identity forever.
The idea that an image can change the world even predates photography. The Victorian magazine The Graphic deliberately used art as a way to stir conscience. Its harrowing illustrations by such artists as Samuel Luke Fildes drew attention to the suffering of the poor and the brutality of workhouses. When photography started to be widely disseminated, the camera just gave this ability to depict reality and changes attitudes more immediacy. Social reformer Jacob Riis was anearly pioneer of this technique, capturing raw photographs of New York poverty designed to shame the city’s millionaires.
It seems that conscience is deeply associated, in our minds, with images. This goes back to Christian art in pre-modern Europe. Caravaggio’s paintingThe Seven Works of Mercy is just one of many Catholic paintings that portray poverty and injustice and urge the onlooker to do something about it.
Compassion, then, is not a new idea and nor is the power of images to awaken it. Artists like Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Hogarth all tried to use art to stir the world to act – and sometimes, like Don McCullin’s in Biafra, images really can make a difference.
This is why it is glib to talk of “compassion fatigue” or assume that people are numbed by images of atrocity. Last year’s mass change of heart showed how suddenly the lightning of conscience can strike. And yet the facts in Syria tangle compassion in barbed wire. Isis is not besieging Madaya, the Syrian regime is. So where does that leave us?
The long history of the power of images to stir empathy and action shows that anyone able to send pictures out of this starving city should keep doing so. It only takes one to change everything.