empathy and the “even worse” in another photo from syria

Just over a month ago, it happened again.  Another picture of a suffering Syrian child and another chorus of certainty that this picture would be the one to awaken the global consciousness, heretofore lacking, necessary to end this intractable, sprawling conflict.

Despite knowing better, I wondered if the teary-eyed optimists were right.  But at the time, busy busy, all I could do was affix a little sticky note to the inside of my planner, as a reminder to post something soonimg_1794.

Of course, many other observers beat me to it, including the newsmedia itself, which shifted into meta-commentary almost immediately, attending far more to the viral circulation of the video and extracted stills of Omran than the story of the airstrike in which he was injured and his home destroyed.  Deviating from the conventional wisdom that graphic images of casualties (especially children) elicit more sympathy from viewers, an article in the New York Times surmises instead that “it may be the relatively familiar look of Omran’s distress that allows a broader public to relate to it.”  Accordingly, it published an curated collection of readers’ responses to the photos.  And it also provided an excursus on its decision to feature this particular photo so prominently, given the steady stream of ostensibly similar images begotten by this conflict.  Ultimately, its explanation of the image’s power is essentially tautological:

One reason the photo of Omran has tugged at so many heartstrings around the world is that the boy — with his innocent stare, just to the side of the camera’s lens — triggers in many a sometimes hard-to-come-by emotion in today’s world: empathy.

The author goes on to explain that this image is ideal for social media: gritty enough to be moving but not so much as to be off-putting.

Other news outlets make a comparison that would have been unthinkable a year ago, intimating that this photo might be more powerful than those of Alan Kurdi.  A commentary published in The Independent describes this new image as “even worse” than the photos of Kurdi’s body on a Turkish beach.  But of course, when Kurdi’s photo went viral last fall, observers endowed it with a similar comparative advantage.  At the time, it seemed that this photo would succeed where previous representations of the migrant crisis – like the truck abandoned on the side of an Austrian highway with the bodies of 58 migrants decomposing inside – had failed to elicit widespread compassion.

Daqneesh became the new affective frontrunner, for as long as it lasted.

Even if viewers were legitimately, verifiably moved by the site of Daqneesh’s body, feelings are fickle, and already, there is competition.  Not from any of the countless, and largely unnamed, children featured in the grim litany of new photos from Syria, Aleppo in particular, but instead from a 6-year-old American boy named Alex, who wrote President Obama a letter in which he offered Daqneesh a place in his New York home.  Now, the top results from a Google News search for “Omran Daqneesh” belong to this quixotic show of hospitality. (I’ll write more about this, and its connection to affective criteria for American exceptionalism, soon.)

Since then, the ceasefire has collapsed and the Syrian government, backed by its Russian allies, has reintensified its aerial bombardments of rebel-held territories.  According to one estimate, 192 Syrian children died in September.

Meanwhile, spectators continued to refine their emotional appetites, while the organizations that feed them insisted that any image powerful enough to gratify them would surely work geopolitical magic at the same time.



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