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.
So predictable...and utterly absurd. pic.twitter.com/6QMzfQPPOo— Lisa Mei Crowley (@LisaMei62) November 26, 2018
“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.
I see a scared mother trying to protect her children. @realDonaldTrump sees a mobster who wants to start a fist fight.What do you see in this picture? #TijuanaBorder#TearGas#Caravanpic.twitter.com/MtBJIXPtwO— Francisco J. Pelayo (@FranPelayo) November 26, 2018
Donald Trump puts babies in cages. Donald Trump tear gases children.Donald Trump puts babies in cages.Donald Trump tear gases children.Donald Trump puts babies in cages.Donald Trump tear gases children.Donald Trump puts babies in cages.Donald Trump tear gases children.— Michael Skolnik (@MichaelSkolnik) November 26, 2018
Many things are seared in my memory from the past 2 years. Nothing will tear this horror away. Simply atrocious. To the silent, you are cowards on the wrong side of history. Chemical weapons against children sounds JUST like Syria. @realDonaldTrump#gop#teargas#caravan#asylumhttps://t.co/dKVfzR55SP— N8 (@TweetsByN8) November 26, 2018
“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.”
These children are barefoot. In diapers. Choking on tear gas.Women and children who left their lives behind -- seeking peace and asylum -- were met with violence and fear.That’s not my America. We’re a land of refuge. Of hope. Of freedom.And we will not stand for this. https://t.co/1APpeHIq6v— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) November 26, 2018
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.
Jim Acosta lectured President Trump about the migrant caravan saying:- Not an invasion- Hundreds of miles away- Would not jump border wallI overlaid actual footage from today of the migrant caravan storming the border to invade the US over Jim's question.I hope you enjoy: pic.twitter.com/p3vQogWnIJ— Benny (@bennyjohnson) November 26, 2018
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.Also on rt.com 'We will not pay for migrants!' Tijuana mayor declares humanitarian crisis, seeks UN help
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.
The dishonest news media just won't let up with junk like this Time Magazine cover. The mom & daughter came here illegally, the little girl was NEVER separated from her mom, & they remain together. Time just took a crying girl's picture and created this image of "cruel Trump". pic.twitter.com/zIM2qp68wV— Bob Dutko (@BobDutko) June 22, 2018
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.
President Trump’s administration was not responsible for either of the viral ‘children in cages’ stories. One was real but from 2014, under the Obama administration. The other was at a protest & the child was being used by protestors. Please, get your facts right people #bbcqtpic.twitter.com/zezq7mqq6j— Jack (@Jack_GOP) June 21, 2018
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!”
Two years ago today, refugee baby Aylan Kurdi of Syria washed up on a beach in Turkey. Refugees must be welcomed. Humanity must prevail. pic.twitter.com/LwBakn1u5r— Dr. Craig Considine (@CraigCons) September 3, 2017
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.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.