Art of the Narrative: How Viral Photos of Suffering Kids Shape (& Silence) Immigration Debate
You’ve seen it by now: Two women and two little children, barefoot and in diapers, fleeing teargas on the US-Mexico border. The powerful image has gone viral, and it’s not the first time. But to what end?
Taken on Sunday by Reuters photographer Kim Kyung-Hoon, the photo soon appeared on the front pages and splashed across the screens of every single US mainstream media outlet. It quickly spread via social media, eclipsing every other image from the incident – in which a group of migrants from the Central American “caravans” tried to storm the US border as San Ysidro.
“Trump tear gasses children!” howled the US president’s critics, using the photo as a bludgeon against the current administration’s border enforcement and immigration policies.
“These children are barefoot. In diapers. Choking on tear gas,” tweeted California’s governor-elect Gavin Newsom, a Democrat. “That’s not my America. We’re a land of refuge. Of hope. Of freedom. And we will not stand for this.”
The Washington Post used Newsom’s words as a headline, solidifying the paper’s ongoing narrative that the “caravans” departing from El Salvador and Honduras, headed to the US border through Guatemala and Mexico, were peaceful crowds of asylum-seekers, mostly women and children, driven by fear of violence and political persecution.
That narrative has certainly been reinforced by photographs of the caravans’ trek north, usually showing women and children rather than the young men that were the vast majority of its members. The caravans were not an “invasion,” the media declared, calling all talk of them – and Trump’s deployment of US troops on the border – a “political stunt” ahead of the midterm elections.
Amid the drama about Trump revoking the press pass of CNN’s White House correspondent Jim Acosta, it was forgotten why he had done so in the first place: because Acosta insisted on arguing with the president over the caravan, instead of asking a question at a press conference.
If all you have seen of the caravan are photos of crying children and worried mothers, which trusted media outlets have repeatedly told you were no threat, very far away, and if and when they arrived ought to be welcomed because turning them back is “not who we are,” it’s perfectly normal to be outraged by Sunday’s picture. The narrative is working as intended.
Before the “children fleeing teargas” there was the “crying girl.” Remember her? A Guatemalan child, reportedly separated from her mother at the border, photoshopped by TIME magazine to face a cruel, unfeeling Trump on the cover as a symbol of his “family separation policy.”
Except it was none of those things. The girl was crying because it was the middle of the night, and she and her mother had just been caught crossing the border illegally. They were detained together. As for family separation, the mother had left Guatemala without telling the father, who had no idea where his daughter was until the photo was published.
Before that, there were photos of “children in cages,” purportedly showing the evil Trump creating concentration camps for innocent migrant children who only wanted a better life in America, fleeing who knows what in their homelands.
That too was fake news: The photo that went viral was from 2014, so if those were “concentration camps” they’d been set up by President Barack Obama. Another photo of a caged boy was actually staged.
Yet people still use them as arguments for the narrative they’ve embraced. Let them all in! “No ban, no wall, no USA at all,” to quote an actual chant at immigration protests. What are you, heartless? Cruel? Racist?
All of this has happened before, just a few years ago, in Europe. At the peak of the Western push for regime change in Damascus, Turkey opened the gates of its refugee camps and told the Syrians “go West.” So they did. European countries balked at opening their borders, however.
Then came The Photo: a little lifeless boy in a red shirt, face-first in the sand, washed up on a Turkish beach after a botched boat crossing. It made the three-year-old Aylan Kurdi a visual embodiment of the argument that “refugees must be welcome!”
There was to be no debate, no discussion, no reasoning this through. If you objected on any grounds, you were a soulless monster. It was not the first time children were exploited by unscrupulous actors in the Syrian War, nor would it be the last.
Visuals like photos and video are the most powerful form of persuasion. Seeing suffering children triggers our basic human emotions. Between the two, whoever is using such pictures to push a narrative is basically “hacking” the feelings of their intended audience. To what end? Some do it for money, others for power and prestige – all the while telling themselves and the targets of their deception it is all for the greater good, of course.
By Nebojsa Malic