THE BLOG
09/16/2013 08:51 am ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

The Power of a Photograph

I read with great interest the article in yesterday's New York Times Week in Review, "The Delicate Handling of Images of War," written by Margaret Sullivan, the newspaper's public editor, defending the decision of The Times' editors to use in the newspaper two shocking photographs from Syria.

One was a large (four-column-wide) photograph from August 22 that I described in a recent post, "The Children of Damascus," which began,

The beautiful babies and children, wrapped in their white shrouds, laid in a row in the street in front of a mosque, while a voice on a loudspeaker asks people to come forward and identify the bodies. They seem to be sleeping, but they were choked to death with poison gas.

This image deeply affected me when I saw it on the front page of my morning newspaper, and it (and similar photos and videos) clearly moved President Obama as well because, in his address to the nation on Tuesday, he said: "The images from this massacre are sickening. Men, women, children lying in row, killed by poison gas."

I've been a journalist all my life and my medium is words, not photographs, but I've always been fascinated by the ability of a photograph to hit you like a punch in the gut -- something that words can rarely do (but sometimes it happens -- especially if you're reading Yeats).

This unique ability of photographs to elicit a visceral reaction in the viewer is one reason photography has always fascinated me and why I've been collecting antique photographs for decades. Today, when we're all aware of the ways that an image can be manipulated, it's hard to realize how shocking and convincing the first photographic images were in the 1840's, after Louis Daguerre revealed his discovery to the world.

These images "written by the sun" as they were advertised, (because, before electricity, they could only be taken on a sunny day) were understood to be God's undeniable truth. That's why photographs were immediately used by scientists and politicians for propaganda to promote their warring views. Louis Agassiz, the leading scientist of his day, traveled to southern plantations in the 1850's and had African-appearing slaves stripped and photographed on daguerreotypes (now owned by Harvard University) in an effort to substantiate his arguments that the Negro was a separate (and inferior) species from the Caucasian. That's why the Northern abolitionists, starting with Charles Sumner, hired photographers to photograph mulatto slaves-- who appeared to be white-- and circulated the images to media like The New York Times and to politicians, to excite anti-slavery feeling. (I've blogged about this, most recently in "White Slave Children of New Orleans - Why?" .)

Back to the disturbing photographs coming out of Syria. Newspapers have always taken pains editing the images on the front pages, which their readers will see as they sit down to their breakfast cereal. But sometimes a photograph is so moving and so important that The Times runs with it. The example I remember most clearly was the 1972 image of the little girl in Viet Nam, naked and burning with napalm as she ran away from an attack on her home. The minute I saw it, I said, "That photograph is going to win the Pulitzer Prize." And it did. And perhaps it hastened the end of that war, as I (and President Obama) hope the photographs of the dead children in Syria will lead eventually to the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons.

In defending The Times' editors, Ms. Sullivan mentioned that they cropped the photograph of a Boston Marathon bombing victim, which showed that one of his legs had been reduced to a single naked bone projecting from his knee. In this case, the newspaper's editors were trying to protect us from the gore, but in the present day of instant, unedited dissemination of news, I and everybody else had seen that photo in its entirety on the internet almost before the victim reached the hospital.

Photographs have a unique ability to move us and drive us to take action, and as long as the photograph is real (un-tampered with) and as long as the caption is accurate in telling us where and when it happened (not the case with a second Times photograph in Sullivan's piece showing kneeling Syrian soldiers about to be executed by rebels in Syria), I believe that reporters and editors should never have to apologize for showing us the truth of what they see.

My interest in the impact of photography is the reason I follow a blog -- BAGNewsnotes.com -- that analyzes news photographs, discussing what they appear to show and how they are being used as propaganda. Yesterday it featured a series of photographs of executions in Syria, prefaced with the words, "Warning: Some of the following images are graphic in nature and might be disturbing to some viewers." I usually can tolerate scenes of gore, but yesterday I chickened out after the first photo. Today I'm going to make myself go back and look at them.