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Images that change how America thinks: Can a photo of a drowned father and daughter shift the immigration debate?

Images that change how America thinks: Can a photo of a drowned father and daughter shift the immigration debate?
The bodies of Salvadoran migrant Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his nearly 2-year-old daughter, Valeria, lie on the bank of the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Mexico, on June 24, 2019, after they drowned trying to cross the river to Brownsville, Texas. (Abraham Pineda-Jacome/EFE / TNS)

It was painful to look at the photo of the lifeless bodies of a father and his infant daughter face down in the muddy waters of the Rio Grande, their tragic fate sealed after trying to cross the perilous river in search of asylum in America.

Typically news organizations, including The Sun, won’t use disturbing photos like this because it can seem sensational or exploitative, and these types of images often do little to add to the narrative and understanding of even the most harrowing stories. Photos of dead bodies at crime scenes, car crashes or accidental drownings rarely make the newspaper pages.

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On the contrary, the photos of Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and 23-month-old Valeria have been used widely as the crisis at the border has reached epic levels of inhumanity. Taken by journalist Julia Le Duc and first published by Mexican newspaper La Jornada, the photo became representative of just how far conditions have spiraled out of control under the tough-on-immigrants Trump administration. The New York Times ran the photo on its front page in a testament to the power of the image.

Not everyone agreed with the decision, though, with criticism coming from several fronts, including the leadership of the Association of Hispanic Journalists, who said the photo “dehumanizes” those so desperate to escape their homelands they are willing to risk their lives and those of their families.

As others have pointed out, a big part of the problem was not the image itself, which accurately tells the story of those trying to reach America’s borders, but of the way the photo was used and disseminated. It was often displayed by itself with little context, or shared haphazardly on Twitter and Facebook. The shares became as ubiquitous as the trending meme of the day, which in some ways probably diluted the effectiveness of bringing attention to the border crisis.

The journalism association said: “Pushing people to look at a shocking image that isn’t in context, is not beneficial for the viewers, it is not beneficial for journalists, and it is absolutely detrimental to the immigrant community.”

We agree that images like these are sensitive and should be used sparingly and in the right context. These after all are real human beings with grieving families and their images should not be used like propaganda purely to stir people up.

But there are also times where the right photograph can spur meaningful change. There are times throughout U.S. history when a powerful image like this has led to a turn in the tide of a humanitarian crises, sparking people to rise out of complacency.

Like in 1955 when Mamie Till Mobley held an open casket funeral so that the world could see her son Emmitt Till’s face, beaten unrecognizable by racists who accused him of whistling at a white woman. The photos ran in Jet magazine and other newspapers and magazines and some say helped ignite new fire and energy in the Civil Rights movement.

Alabama state troopers swing nightsticks to break up a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala., March 7, 1965. As several hundred marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge to begin a protest march to Montgomery, state troopers assaulted the crowd with clubs and whips.
Alabama state troopers swing nightsticks to break up a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala., March 7, 1965. As several hundred marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge to begin a protest march to Montgomery, state troopers assaulted the crowd with clubs and whips. (AP)

A decade later, brutal media images also brought attention to the fight for voting rights in 1965. The television clips and photos of state troopers brutalizing peaceful demonstrators marching over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., which became known as “Bloody Sunday,” caused public outrage and stirred up many people who had been passively observing the fight for civil rights for African Americans from afar. Within five months, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which President Lyndon Johnson signed into law on Aug. 6 of that year.

The way people around the world viewed the Vietnam War also changed after people saw the now iconic photo of a young Kim Phúc screaming and running naked through the streets, in pain from a napalm attack.

In this June 8, 1972, file photo taken by Huynh Cong "Nick' Ut, South Vietnamese forces follow terrified children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, center, as they run down Route 1 near Trang Bang after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places.
In this June 8, 1972, file photo taken by Huynh Cong "Nick' Ut, South Vietnamese forces follow terrified children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, center, as they run down Route 1 near Trang Bang after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places. (Nick Ut / AP)

Newspapers should have long and careful conversations when using images like this. And they do. One of the concerns some critics have had is that media rarely uses these graphic images when writing about tragedies on American soil, such as Sandy Hook, or when it comes to white victims. This leaves the impression that it is more acceptable to dramatize the tragedies of communities of color. That is fair criticism.

But we don’t think these images should be totally ruled out. Once again, it is about context. The follow-up stories further delve into the plight of the young father and his daughter and put a human face on the story that the early reporting often is not able to. These stories are accompanied by touching photos of the pair that further underscores the tragedy of their death.

Rosa Ramirez cries when shown a photograph printed from social media of her son Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramírez, 25, granddaughter Valeria, nearly 2, and her daughter-in-law Tania Vanessa Avalos, 21, while speaking to journalists at her home in San Martin, El Salvador.
Rosa Ramirez cries when shown a photograph printed from social media of her son Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramírez, 25, granddaughter Valeria, nearly 2, and her daughter-in-law Tania Vanessa Avalos, 21, while speaking to journalists at her home in San Martin, El Salvador. (Antonio Valladares / AP)

Unfortunately, President Donald Trump hasn’t been swayed. Although, he said he hated the image, we wonder about the sincerity of the comment since Mr. Trump used the incident to attack Democrats on their immigration policies. No surprise there, really.

For others it is a different story. Already the photo of Oscar Ramirez and his young daughter has resulted in more than just the shock value that some people worried about and tugged at the hearts of people around the world, from Pope Francis to quarterback Russell Wilson. It was a topic at the Democratic presidential debates, and both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have said they hope it brings more urgency to the issue.

The House passed a bipartisan border funding bill late Thursday, resulting in blistering criticism by progressives for House Speaker of Nancy Pelosi. But it ends the gridlock over the issue and brings much-needed emergency funding to the deplorable conditions at the border detention areas. Ms. Pelosi said it would get resources to the children the fastest, and we can’t help but wonder if the image of little Valeria still clinging to her father was etched in her mind when she made the decision.

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Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, opened a hearing Wednesday saying the photo should propel Congress to act, according to a story in The Washington Post.

“I don’t want to see another picture like that on the U.S. border,” Johnson said.

Neither do we.

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