We have a responsibility to bear witness, to reach into the hearts of our audiences.

Photo: iStock

It's the picture not the frame

22 October 2015
Author: Lyndall Stein

The tragic photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian child, washed up on a Turkish beach is testament to the power images have to generate passionate responses. It has transformed the narrative on the refugee crisis in the UK and precipitated an extraordinary outpouring of empathy and action; tens of thousands of people have mobilised, showing their support for refugees by marching, campaigning and donating generously.

It challenges the school of thought that tells us not to use images of those who are dead, or dehumanizing images that might impact the dignity of those portrayed.

This imperative to use positive images to depict or encourage people to support development work and humanitarian assistance can work against our determination to build support for people affected by poverty, displacement and conflict.

We are caught in a bit of a bind – worried on the one hand that people are losing interest in development, but unable to find the compelling visual images that effectively communicate the problems.

Visiting some Bond member offices you would be forgiven for thinking you are in an upmarket travel agent: bright and colourful images of cheerful, smiling people and attractive landscapes adorn the walls of many development NGOs. Is this the reality of inequality, poverty and war?

As a sector, we have a responsibility to bear witness, to reach into the hearts of our audiences and bring them closer to the appalling experiences of people living with poverty, oppression and conflict.

Those who have seen first-hand the horror that a mother experiences when her child is near death because of malnutrition, who have seen the pain and terror of those affected by disease, who have seen the effects of brutality and war, must continue to find ways to tell those stories to the outside world, to people who have their own worries and concerns and need to have these visceral realties brought home to them with real passion.

Compelling photography can cut through inertia and indifference and can turn emotion into positive action. Vivid, truthful images, critical agents for change, can be difficult and upsetting. But we must not sacrifice the power of an image that is telling a story that matters, for the well-meaning but bland.

The iconic images, so essential to communicating brutality, inequality, conflict and poverty cannot, at the same time, be expected to build a comfortable and positive narrative. We have to show the problem and the solution, people's strength and power, but also the forces that undermine their potential.

Some of the most exceptional photographs I have worked with have been finely balanced and complex: they have communicated jeopardy, empathy and passion, evoked strong emotions – anger, compassion and even outrage, and shown both tragedy and heroism.

The critical challenge for NGOs working with images is understanding the message and the audience. Working with photographers who understand the story, who share the values of the organisation, and who will work bravely to describe both the courage and resilience of poor people, but also their suffering and their pain is crucial. We must have the courage to tell the truth however painful and uncomfortable.

The transformative impact of Aylan’s picture cannot be underestimated; it completely changed the image of those seeking refuge. Its use, sanctioned by his bereaved father, has shone a light on the horrors that refugees endure, with such courage, in their search for safety and sanctuary.

About the author

Lyndall Stein

Lyndall has worked for a wide range of organisations concerned with social justice, including Care International, Bond, Concern UK, ActionAid International, the Terrence Higgins Trust, the Big Issue Foundation and the African National Congress.