WARNING - DISTURBING IMAGE of drowned toddler BELOW
Recently in Australia we have seen first hand how the power of an image can shift perspective so dramatically that critical policies are changed in a matter of days. This has been incredible to be a part and aware of. I’ve seen the image of the drowned child on the paper, on TV, across the media, and I have physically shielded my face at times because of the heart wrenching emotions it ignites within me. The power of an image in astonishing - but this power is within us, not the image; the power of our imaginations that bring a whole story to the image and feel in every cells what it might be like to be involved in such a tragedy. I believe the importance of empathy as an imagined understanding in creating awareness and action is indisputable. I am currently writing a paper discussing how images and stories facilitate imagination in ways that build understanding and awareness in ways that knowledge about ‘the environment’ cannot.
For over 15 years, Australia has had huge debate around immigration and humanitarian aid, culminating in strict and unsympathetic refugee policies. It is not that the government and people of Australian have been unaware of the war in Iraq, then Afghanistan, now Syria, the displacement of peoples, or the figures that indicated desperate need. But, in September, it was a photograph of a child found drowned on a beach in Turkey, that launched a vigil in the capital city, Canberra, and within a week the government announced Australia will accept 12,000 refugees.
CBC debated the power of the image in the media. The media clearly identified the power of this image to cause empathy and new levels of understanding. The Independent ran the image on the cover with the title Somebody's Child evoking the personal, empathic emotional identification with the image. Business Insider's headline responded, it read Heartbreaking photo of a drowned toddler embodies the world’s failure in Syria.
The harrowing images allowed our imaginations to build pictures. The empathy felt for the child involved imagining the narrative of his circumstance, family, and desperation, the loss of which was felt throughout Australia, through the image. The photograph ignited empathy, when knowledge about the crisis was not missing, bringing forth an imagined narrative that previously could not have been imagined. This enabling of empathy was so affective, it will now not only change 12,000 lives, but 100’s of Australian households are putting up their hands to take a refugee family into their homes. I use this example to highlight how images and their embedded stories enable empathy which creates access to being able to imagine the situation of another. The vibrant shift the image has made gives it agency. This example recognises that despite knowledge, statistics and large figures, the reality of the impact of circumstances on real people was not fully imagined, and the image facilitated this through imagination. The involvement of emotion is significant, being able to imagine another world is critical. The images not only ignited empathy but allowed us to imagine the plight of others whose experiences we had never shared. Images of Syrian refugees continue to flood into the news and media with the power to haunt ones imagination and emotions.
Huffington Post's headline: Haunting Image Of Drowned Boy Sums Up Consequences Of 'The Syrian War In One Photo' as well as an analysis of images and their role to communicate the personal and unspeakable; Every Picture Tells a Story - That's Why Migration Is One of the Most Difficult to Tell
The New York Times ran the story without any images:
It is critical to recognise the power of images in educating people with new knowledge and awareness because images have the agentic power of each person’s imagination within their potential. They have to power to warn, frighten and break your heart. As sustainability is one of the goals of education around the world, we need to recognise that the idea of sustainability is a response to the global environmental and humanitarian crisis. To educate for sustainability we need to realise the power of the images that employ emotion to communicate through imagination. However, it is essential to not use imagery that will harm children’s minds, bring fear, anxiety or stress to their emotional lives. Understanding the impact of circumstances on other people, beings and elements is a critical part of understanding humanitarian and environmental justice. In my paper I argue that understanding imagination and empathy in EfS is a critical part of education for a fair, equitable and safe future for all.
Whilst the image is brutal, and certainly not for children, the power of the image to communicate and ignite empathy for people's displacement and suffering. The tragedy is overwhelming for the boys father, even he wants whole world to see this suggesting that he knew the power of that image to change the world.
Sally Jensen is a Sustainability Educator and facilitator of the ResourceSmart Schools program in Victoria.