Does An Image Inform Or Evoke?

The aphorism is that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and it’s hard to argue otherwise. But that neither means the words are informative nor that the picture makes us wiser, a point that Lydia Polgreen studiously ignores when she says “this photograph demands an answer.”

If you don’t look too closely you might think the photograph is a dimly lit snapshot from a slumber party or a family camping trip. Six small children lie in a row, their heads poking out from the white sheet that is casually lying across their little chests. None appear to be older than 10, though it is hard to say for sure.

It’s a photograph of six children killed in Gaza. It is heart wrenching. How can a photograph of dead children be anything but heart wrenching?

This photograph has not been published by a mainstream news organization, so far as I can tell. Because of its graphic nature, The Times has decided not to publish it in full; this column is accompanied by a cropped version of the image. The full image can be seen here. It is a rare thing for mainstream news organizations to publish graphic images of dead or wounded children. Rightly so. There is nothing quite so devastating as the image of a child whose life has been snuffed out by senseless violence. The longstanding norms are to show such images sparingly, if at all.

As someone calling for a ceasefire, Polgreen argues that this photograph needs to be seen so we can feel the horrors of war and its real consequences.

And so I ask you to look at these children. They are not asleep. They are dead. They will not be part of the future.

And the image does what Polgreen wants it to do, drives home the horrors being suffered by the children of Palestine. How can one not want a ceasefire after seeing an image of dead children? No decent human being can see a photograph of dead children and not feel that this cannot continue. And that’s the point.

Under the federal rules of evidence, Rule 403, a judge may exclude evidence that is more prejudicial than probative. Images can do a few different things. They can illuminate a fact in doubt, such as whether someone was there or something happened. They can informs us of how things appear when we otherwise lack context. And they can evoke emotions, such as an image of a beautiful vista or six dead Palestinian children.

The image of which Polgreen speaks doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. We know that Israeli bombs kill civilians along with terrorists. We know that there are many children killed. There is no one questioning whether that is, in fact, true, unlike those who question whether the atrocities committed on October 7th actually happened or were exaggerated by Israel or inflicted by the Israeli Defense Force upon its own people to create an excuse to kill Gazans.

There were images of a terrorist using a hoe to behead a soldier. There were images of babies burned and decapitated. There were images of a woman with blood staining her sweat pants after being raped, then displayed by a terrorist as if a prize. These images were shown because people claimed they didn’t exist, so they served to prove that they did, most assuredly exist. No one needed to see these images to evoke emotion, but they were needed to prove the truth of what they depicted.

The image that Polgreen asserts “demands answers” serves a very different purpose. Its purpose is solely to evoke emotion.

There are reasonable people who would argue, as Lydia does, that showing this specific photograph is necessary to offer moral clarity around the stakes of this war and the pain it is inflicting on civilians in Gaza. Others, including supporters of the Palestinian cause, would see the same image and suggest that publishing it risked dehumanizing the children it depicted. And still others could ask why Times Opinion has not published similar graphic photographs of the Israeli babies killed in the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks.

Does a photograph that serves only to evoke emotion, to influence our feelings not from the hard labor of thinking but the easy path of feeling, “offer moral clarity”? As noted, there could be competing photos of Israeli children versus Palestinian children, which, I guess, would then default to who has more dead children and is therefor more morally clear. Is that how it works? Does that inform sound policy choices, a deeper understanding of the conflict so that there will be a better understanding of what is required to resolve the conflict?

Maybe Polgreen is right, that it’s too easy to make detached judgments, sanitized from the horrors of dead children, and that we need to see the consequences of choices. Or maybe the emotion these images evoke will make us unable to make painful but wise choices, because nobody wants to see dead children as a consequences of their actions. At least no one with a shred of human decency.

24 thoughts on “Does An Image Inform Or Evoke?

  1. Jim

    When my team is losing a tug-of-war contest, I’ll always advocate for more critical judgement from the referee.

    1. SHG Post author

      You know how I get when comments fail to have anything to do with the post? That’s how I am about this comment.

  2. phv3773

    I pose the following question without any particular knowledge of, or reference to, the picture described above:

    Does it matter if the scene has been staged for maximum emotional effect, and would never have existed absent the photographer?

  3. Bryan Burroughs

    As much a I criticize Israeli policy elsewhere, I find it interesting that these folks aren’t highlighting pictures of the Palestinians Hamas has killed or otherwise brutalized. I guess a dead Palestinian child only matters when an Israeli did it.

  4. Elpey P.

    Ironically it’s not uncommon for the impassioned activist to denounce people for sharing imagery that doesn’t specifically support their narrative and passion, let alone complicates or undermines it. (That Kendian binary again.) Whether informing or evoking, the merits are determined strictly on a “with us or against us” basis.

    If the evoke (or agitate) function creates the illusion of informing, but serves a lie, it is praiseworthy. If it truthfully informs and corrects the lie, it is denounced for doing so. Once the narrative is set, “inform” must yield to “evoke.”

    The common gutter tactics on social media to fallaciously attack those who either inform or evoke outside the narrow window of goodthink have now migrated to our institutions and newsrooms. For these folx Rule 403 is another example of how white supremacy is baked into the legal system.

  5. Jake

    The court of public opinion does not have the same rules as a federal court. Photographs may only impact your feelings, and offer no data useful for informing your opinion but, and I know you know this, because it’s a lesson I’ve received here many times, your experience in any situation is not the same as everyone else’s experience.

    Whether any individual likes it or not, Israel’s security is possible due to the largesse of the American public, whose opinion, in the aggregate, is critically important in these matters. Public opinion is currently in a dynamic state of change. That should matter to the people in Israel who decide where and how many bombs to drop, but it doesn’t seem to.

    1. Hunting Guy

      Jake,

      When you are in a fight, and losing the fight means you and your family are dead, you don’t care about public opinion.

      1. Jake

        Yes, yes. That’s a very emotive comment that is sure to appeal to folks who think mostly with the small part of their brain. A more rational perspective is Israel needs to manage their security in the immediate, near, and long-term. All of these things matter. A strategist will be thinking about whether their actions today impact their prospects tomorrow.

        1. Miles

          Hi Jake. Question: If Israel was to agree to a ceasefire, what happens to the hostages? What happens to Hamas? Does Hamas say “we bad” and promise to be good dudes from now on, and then everybody just gets back to normal? How does this work in your head?

          1. Jake

            These are complicated questions, unlikely to be sufficiently resolved in a conversation in the SJ comments. But, since the current strategy has not ended Hamas’ long term ability to terrorize and murder Israelis or returned the hostages, let’s just say, for the sake of discussion, my approach would be more surgical.

            But also, the ‘what about the hostages’ argument is nonsense and I know you are smart enough to see that. You don’t get hostages back by targeting an area they are likely being held with 25,000 tonnes of munitions and reducing it to dust and rubble.

            1. Miles

              There’s a running joke here that every time you’re asked to put up or shut up, all you manage to do is dodge the question. I admire your consistency, though. I don’t know what I would do if you ever actually had the balls to try to answer a question. I think SJ would explode.

            2. Jake

              There’s a running joke here that every time you ask a question of a stranger on the internet completely outside the scope of the day’s discussion, they owe you their time to answer.

              Israel has other options. I’ve suggested you read up on the strategies for dealing with insurgency. It’s not my job to educate you.

    2. SHG Post author

      On the one hand, who do you think would make the wiser public policy decision, an emotionally inflamed person or a calm, rational person? On the other hand, a yougov poll yesterday shows that only 9% of the American public is sympathetic toward the Palestinians and disapproves of Biden’s siding with Israel. Just because they’re loud and they’re your peeps does not mean they aren’t a tiny minority.

      1. Jake

        Sympathy for the Palestinians is not equal to supporting a humanitarian cease fire. You’ve got polls, I’ve got polls. The point of my comment was not to start a stats debate, but…

        Reuters: As of 5 hours ago: US public support for Israel drops; majority backs a ceasefire, Reuters/Ipsos shows. Some 68% of respondents in the Reuters/Ipsos poll said they agreed with a statement that “Israel should call a ceasefire and try to negotiate.”

        The point is, American public opinion matters to Israel’s long-term security. I don’t think you’d disagree, that opinion is presently changing.

        1. SHG Post author

          I saw that poll. 4% support Palestine. I understand why people support a ceasefire. Thinking is hard. But that doesn’t mean Israel will lose their support.

          1. Jake

            I agree with you, but it also doesn’t mean Israel won’t lose some support. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter to the interested parties whether Joe and Jane Q Public make a decision after hours of thought or an emotional response to a dead baby picture when they call their congressional reps to demand a policy change. I think it would be very shortsighted to assume the Overton window isn’t moving.

  6. Anonymous Coward

    Is Lydia Polgreen prepared for answers other than her prejudiced conclusions? The answer I have is that the fat men in Quatar safely out of range of Israeli retribution started this war, and the war before it because they seek genocide and will sacrifice their children to achieve it. Ismail Haniyah, Saleh Al-Arouri, Mohammed Deif, and their cronies deserve the blame for every drop of blood spilled since October 7.

  7. Hal

    Pretending that today is Tuesday and our host is allowing off topic comments, I’ll posit that “[S]afely out of range of Israeli retribution” isn’t something I’d bet on. I’d be surprised if, in the fullness of time, some of HAMAS leadership suffer a sudden cessation of corporeal existence. JMO

  8. B. McLeod

    Photos to evoke emotive responses are a tool to enlist the ignorant, who have no idea what the historically developed standards are, or how they apply. Do they think there were no children among the 25,000 people burned in Dresden or the 100,000 people burned in the March 1944 bombing of Tokyo? Do they think the firestorms passed harmlessly by the hospitals and nurseries? Or do they think the world should have been surrendered to the Axis powers to avoid these consequences? Or do they think at all?

    1. JRP

      Although I fully support Israel’s response, this is a bad analogy. Japan and Germany did not have the ability to use social media to influence populations outside their control.

      Propaganda is not new but social media has changed how countries fight and provides terrorist regimes ways to target the uninformed and willfully ignorant in stronger nations.

Comments are closed.