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.