Can a single photo still change our world?
Ranjan here, and this post will be kind of intense. I'll be talking about attention spans in the context of a horrifying photo from earlier this year.
You probably encountered that photo this summer. Maybe it was shared on a social feed or maybe you saw it on the front page of the print NYT. As with most things information, I first encountered it on Twitter. I think it was people tweeting about how they would not share it, which of course made me want to find it.
And then I found it.
What happened, according to The Guardian:
According to Julia Le Duc, a reporter for La Jornada, Martínez Ramírez had arrived in Matamoros on Sunday, hoping to request asylum from US authorities with his wife, Vanessa Ávalos, and their daughter. But when he realized that it could be weeks before they were even able to start the asylum process, Martínez decided they should swim across, said Le Duc, who witnessed Ávalos give her account to the police.
“He crossed first with the little girl and he left her on the American side. Then he turned back to get his wife, but the girl went into the water after him. When he went to save her, the current took them both,” Le Duc told the Guardian.
Just look at that picture. Her arm across her father’s neck. He draped her in his tshirt to try to carry her. Her diaper filled up with water. She's still little enough to wear a diaper, but old enough that her shoes look like they've been walked in. So perfectly two years old. From a different angle it looks like he has dark blue adidas gym shorts. I think I have the same pair. It looks like there is a beer can next to her. That little girl's arm is around her Dad. Her little brown arm is almost blue-ish. And they're both dead. He went back for her, and they both drowned. Together. With her arm around his neck and him carrying her.
I'll stop now and try to make it through this piece.
TRYING TO STAY FOCUSED
My daughter was exactly 2 1/2. I stared and stared. I didn't quite cry, but it was a weird emotion. I remember wanting to not look away. To not keep scrolling and to make this count, at least for me. Somehow. I didn't know what I would do and wasn't planning on writing a letter to my congressman or something. I just wanted to not diminish what I was looking at, and to switch my attention would do so. I instantly thought about that little Syrian boy who washed up on the beach and the famous Napalm Girl image. Should I look them up? No, I'm going to try to stay here.
I remember all this vividly because there was this weird internal, self-aware push and pull. I was desperate for the country and world to collectively take in this horrifying photo and make it mean something. Before we started arguing whether it was fake, or tried to find salacious details of the father's past, or question whether the family should've even been on the journey, or debate the impact of Trumpian immigration policies, we would all just stare and try to process how soul-crushingly awful the thought of a parent and child drowning together, wrapped up like that really is.
The least I could do, my tiny part, was to not look elsewhere or think about something else. And just stare and think.
I remember it being really hard.
SCROLL OR ENGAGE
I've done a fair amount of reading on attention spans and media consumption. My attention span isn't quite that of a goldfish, yet. I can still read books and watch full movies, and I do write these long newsletters, so I'm still trying to fight the good attention fight. But just staring at a digital image is hard for me.
I'm hesitant to media-intellectualize my experience with the photo, but I think it's important. As I stared at that photo, I wanted to just keep scrolling. My thumb was fighting my heart.
The medium gave me two choices, keep scrolling or engage: Like it, share it, or comment on it (‘engage’ here is not necessarily a positive thing). Facebook's $600bn market cap depends on their best-in-class data, product and engineering talent making sure you feel those choices viscerally. Do not linger. Keep scrolling or engage. The platforms are great at it.
So I went to the NYTimes home page, and clicked on the article. This was much better. There were no Forbes.com-ian autoplay video ads popping up as I stared. Just a photo on a white canvas. It makes sense as the NYT business model incorporates time-on-page as a commercial metric. That's a good thing. But the depressing part is, my mind still had trouble staying there. I wanted to go find out "what people were saying" and google more about who this father and daughter were. I tried reflecting, yet my eyes darted to the 20 other browser tabs I had open.
I finally googled "Napalm Girl" and wondered could a single, powerful, horrible photo still create widespread societal change? I searched for "Syrian toddler on beach.” Did that photo end up changing the course of the Syrian refugee crisis (this is a decent piece arguing that it did)?
I wonder (and worry) about the way we experience photography. There's a palpable difference in looking at photography in one of those Top 25 News Photos of 2019 from The Atlantic or The Best Photos of 2019 from National Geographic versus scrolling through Instagram. Each human-curated photo feels like it has some greater worth, but there are still so many, you spend less time with each individual one.
Margins' media-wonk readers might be familiar with the famous Marshall McLuhan idea of The Medium is the Message: the nature of a medium (the channel through which a message is transmitted) is more important than the meaning or content of the message.
I firmly buy into this. The scary part is the dominant places where we are now introduced to photography are those social feeds where you scroll past or engage. We are trained to engage in metrics warfare rather than quiet reflection.
The NYTimes decision to publish the Oscar and Valeria image on their print front page was a controversial one. The editorial staff wrote an entire piece explaining their choice and one idea really stood out:
There are some places the photo hasn’t appeared: The Times has a longstanding policy of not using graphic images in social media posts, except in extremely rare circumstances.
“It’s one thing to feature graphic photos on the homescreen or in an article,” Cynthia Collins, our off-platform editor, said. “It’s quite another thing to serve a graphic image in tweets and Facebook posts that can appear in the newsfeeds of people who didn’t deliberately seek out the news and editorial judgment of The New York Times.”
It’s a smart insight. The medium matters (I also love that the NYT has an ‘off-platform editor’).
I can’t read a full book on the Kindle app for iPad because, as I’m reading, I inevitably switch to Safari and look stuff up related to what I’m reading. Sure, this can lead to some interesting internet rabbit holes and learnings, but it usually results in not finishing the book. If I read on a physical Kindle, I have nowhere else to go. If a passage strikes me, thanks to the device’s wonderfully shitty connectivity, I can only just stop and think.
Back in June, I told myself I would not forget that photo. I had actually made a mental note to just spend some time with it towards the end of the year, and thanks to writing this newsletter, can make good on that promise. Maybe if I didn’t have a little girl around the same age, it wouldn’t have hit me as hard, but it’s still astonishing to me that photo didn’t have every American completely stop in their tracks. I don’t know what would’ve been the desirable policy outcome, but I’m not even going that far.
I’m not a big New Year’s resolutions person, but if there’s one thing for 2020 I want to do more of, it’s just stop and reflect. Not share. Not comment. Just silently try to think.
And then maybe a few months later write a newsletter about it.
Note #1: A big thank you to the large number of readers who responded to my newsletter on Innovation in the 2010s. I’ll be following up on this topic in next week’s edition and including some of your examples.