A View from the Hill: One image is worth more now than ever before

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I’m looking for an image. You haven’t seen it, because it doesn’t yet exist. You will know when it does.

I hope that will be soon because it’s what we need right now, what we’ve needed for most of this dreadful year – an image so powerful that it snaps the head around, shocks the mind, grabs the heart. An image that knows no party, no camp, no ideology. A lightning bolt of raw emotion that brings us to our collective senses.

By an image I mean a photograph, one like John Paul Filo’s 1970 shot of a young woman, Anne Vecchio, crying out over the dying body of Kent State College student Jeffrey Miller, gunned down by Ohio National Guard troops brought in to break up a protest against U.S. military action in Cambodia. It is a scene of raw horror and chaos, and it went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and inspire a Neil Young protest song and energize and focus the nation’s youth.

That kind of photograph. 

Or the 1972 photo by Nick Ut. Five Vietnamese children run from their burning village after it was mistakenly napalmed by the South Vietnamese Air Force. On the left is a boy, his mouth grotesquely distorted as he cries out, but the eye snaps right to a 9-year-old girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, naked, running toward the camera, her arms flailing out helplessly. 

The photographer took her to a hospital, where she was treated for burns covering a third of her body. 

President Richard Nixon called the photo a fake. Sound familiar? But that image grabbed the nation’s attention and galvanized opposition to the war.  The U.S. pulled out of the war that same year, 58,000 American deaths too late. But at least it was over. The photograph won a Pulitzer Prize.

That kind of image.

There are many more. They are never pleasant. They are always horrific. Heads don’t snap at pleasant. Hearts aren’t broken at pleasant. These images hurt. If they don’t, even now, years later, you must be a stone.

In 2015, Nilufer Demir photographed a rescuer standing over the dead body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, face down in the sand, waves lapping at his little body. Alan was a refugee who had fled the war in Syria with his family in a rubber raft. Alan and his older brother drowned.

In Time magazine’s “100 Photographs: The most influential images of all time,” where you can see all these images (100photos.time.com), the editors wrote of the photograph’s impact:

“News organizations were compelled to publish it – or publicly defend their decision not to. And European governments were suddenly compelled to open closed frontiers. Within a week, trainloads of Syrians were arriving in Germany to cheers, as a war lamented but not felt suddenly brimmed with emotions unlocked by a picture of one small, still form.”

That’s the kind of image I mean. A moment that defines the searing pain, the deep grief, the unbearable agony of 2020. Image. Imagination. Can you imagine it?

This year we’ve been showered with great photographs, countless videos, creative graphics, and endless data about the coronavirus. Yet still, we wake every day to news that is worse than the day before. Good news comes in drips. Little changes. Today is just like yesterday and the day before. We are being crushed by a relentless pandemic. Terrorized by a hateful, off-the-rails president. Still overwhelmed by systemic racism. Oh, I nearly forgot about climate change.

Journalists are trying hard to catch your attention with the written word, but writing isn’t a photograph, doesn’t punch you in the gut, doesn’t snap your head around. Writing is a massage when what we need is a hard, sudden smack in the face. 

Maybe that’s too much to ask of a single image. Maybe we don’t care anymore. Maybe, a journalist friend points out, “the argument is that all things journalistic have lost their punch, just when we need them most.”

Maybe. But I’m going to hold out hope. After all, it’s happened before. Just one image. One lucky image.

I would be thankful for that.

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.