When is an image more than just an image?

Chris Herlinger | March 21, 2013

Photo: Kenya, Paul Jeffrey/ACT Alliance

Photo: Kenya, Paul Jeffrey/ACT Alliance

When is a photograph more than a photograph? What happens when it becomes an “entry point” into understanding how we decide which images to use, or to shun?

That is one of the themes of an essay I wrote that appeared recently in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. The piece, “Exposing the Fine Lines,” is ostensibly a review of author and critic Susie Linfield’s The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence.

A good deal of the piece deals with some of the debates we at CWS had about using a particular image taken by my friend and colleague Paul Jeffrey – a very tough photograph he took of a child at a Kenya feeding center during the 2011 drought and famine.

We ended up using the image, but not after a little soul-searching – not surprising for an agency that, as I wrote, is “nothing if not careful.”

One colleague believed that “while we do want to convey the need of hungry and hurting people around the world … (we) want to avoid compounding the dehumanizing aspects of poverty with dehumanizing images of those suffering. In general … we’ve tried to match images of need with images that suggest strength, creativity, agency.”

While I agreed with that argument in general, I did feel (and still believe) there are moments when a situation like the 2011 East African drought call for the use of riskier images – “to tell a more complete story, to witness in a more truthful way, and, if we can do it, to prompt action.”

One colleague disagreed with me, saying it has always been difficult for her to see images of children in crisis. “Just looking at the photograph commits violence on the observer,” she said.

In the end, we used the image because the photo clearly showed the child being fed with a feeding tube – there was a “humanitarian intervention being applied,” as another colleague recalled. “If the tube hadn’t been there, I don’t think I would have pushed it.”

What do you think of our internal debate? Are images like this appropriate or not?  Are there times when tougher photographs should be used? Read the piece and decide.

Chris Herlinger is a writer with CWS.