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The Emotional Power of Photography: From the Civil Rights Movement to Iraq, How Empathy Can Impact Change

Gary Olson

In his recent book, The Slave Ship, maritime historian Marcus Rediker documents the role played by emotional and especially visual appeals in ending the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The visuals were indispensable because, as the abolitionist James Field Stanfield argued, the terrible truths of the slave trade "had been withheld from the public eye by every effort that interest, ingenuity, and influence, could devise."

In particular, the images of life aboard the slave ship Brooks were "among the most effective propaganda any social movement has ever created." The viewers' empathy, psychological identification and moral outrage was engaged by graphic depictions of the wholesale violence, barbarity and torture that routinely accompanied this link in the slave trade.

Reading Rediker's book prompted me to think about powerful images that affected my own political consciousness, beginning with the civil rights movement.

Arguably, although I didn't see it at the time, the most important photograph of the early civil rights era was that of the hideously mutilated face of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955. Hill, from Chicago, had been visiting his cousins in rural Mississippi. After allegedly whistling at a white woman he was abducted, beaten, shot, and lynched. His mother insisted on an open coffin viewing, and photographs appeared in Jet magazine, a black publication. Their impact was incalculably important to African-Americans but to my knowledge the images never appeared in any mainstream media outlets.

Photos that I vividly recall making an impression on me include 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford being viciously taunted by a young white girl as she attempted to enter Little Rock Central High School on September 4, 1957. Later, images of police dogs attacking civil rights demonstrators and fire hoses being turned on others were seared into my consciousness. And I will never forget the faces of the four little girls killed in the terrorist bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

As a 17-year-old, my earliest memory of Vietnam was the self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc on a busy Saigon street in 1963. I can still recall his dignified stillness as the flames enveloped him. Because he was protesting against the U.S.-backed Diem dictatorship I began to question the official story about Vietnam. Later, the June 8, 1972 image from Vietnam of naked, burned, nine-year-old Kim Phuc, as she fled down the highway after a napalm attack on her village remained imprinted on my brain. I remember wondering how we could permit such moral obscenities to occur.

Fast forward: I recenly saw the film "Stop-Loss," directed and co-written by Kimberly Peirce, her first feature since the Oscar-winning "Boys Don't Cry" in 1999. Peirce's film doesn't have a political agenda, but it is an unflinching take on violence in Iraq and especially the problems facing vets returning to civilian life in small town Texas.

It's fiction but more than a few scenes have remained with me, especially an indelibly affecting scene with a hospitalized Iraqi vet. In some respects the film felt more authentic than the "embedded" media coverage or, in truth, the total lack of coverage of the actual war.

The limitations placed on exposure to powerful images that might stir our deepest emotions would make a modern day Dr. Goebbels green with envy. The destruction of CIA torture tapes is but one example. We've only seen a fraction of the infamous Abu Ghraib photos, pictures taken by those carrying out the atrocities. I'm not the first person to identify the grotesque parallel between the powerful images of police dogs unleashed on Iraqi prisoners and Nazi SS guards using attack dogs to guard death camp inmates.

We know the Pentagon forbids media coverage of the remains of soldiers departing Ramstein Air Base in Germany or coffins returing to Dover, Delaware. Landstule regional medical center in Germany, which routinely receives horribly maimed soldiers from Iraq is off-limits for photos and reporters are closely monitored by military escorts. An acquaintance of mine volunteers as a counselor at the center and recently told me the heartbreaking story of trying to comfort a blind quadruple amputee, the victim of a roadside bombing in Iraq. I went away with the impression that if we could join her daily rounds, U.S. occupation would have ended long ago.

And therein resides both an intractable indictment and a vexing question. What are the odds of an Iraqi Kim Phuc's image being published today? We know that photographers are routinely banned from the battle zone while others are pressured into self-censorship. But we might speculate on the powerful impact such images would evoke within American society, how our now well-documented evolutionary and biological capacity for empathy might be engaged to pressure policymakers. Photo journalist Mary Anne Golon believes images have power because they "serve as evidence for accusations of wrongdoing." Perhaps that explains their absence today.

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Gary Olson

Gary Olson

Gary Olson is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. His most recent book is Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture and the Brain (NY: Springer, 2013.) Contact:

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