The Most Influential Photograph in History?

I’m haunted by this photograph that was part of the New York Times “A Year in Pictures” series. It filled the entire front page of the December 24th Week in Review section of the paper.

The photograph was taken by freelance Chilean documentary photographer Tomas Murita, an intrepid journalist who has taken stunning shots at events like the funeral of Fidel Castro and disturbing shots of the El Salvadoran prison population.  Like the more famous Brazilian Sebastiao Salgado, his “beats” are big human rights and environment issues, especially in those parts of the world left behind by global capitalism.

What makes this photograph so memorable is the way in which the compositional elements underscore the human suffering depicted. The photographer’s selection of just this definitive moment is brilliant. For me the depiction of helplessness invites comparisons to a famous work of French Romanticism, Theodore Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa which depicted on a 16’x23’ canvas the wreck of a French frigate with 150 sailors on board off the coast of Senegal in 1819. The geometries of the spaces, especially triangular components,  within the frame are quite similar.

Riveting is the portrait of the lead rower on the raft, the focal point of the photograph. Like the other passengers, his body is covered with flies, but he’s unmindful of them; his attention is directed elsewhere and we are left to imaging what it is that has captured his attention. Is it the last sight of his waterside village? Is it the fate of another raft of refugees? Is the look that of desired vengeance against a menacing military man with a bayonet? Is it the look of sustained vigilance necessary to protect the woman and children who may be his relatives?

His wrinkled toes and slightly misshapen fingers indicate a life of hard labor begun long before what seems to be his present adolescent state. His singlet and thin pants may be the only possession he will carry with him to his new home in Bangladesh or Malaysia.

Munita’s photograph documents one vivid incident in the crackdown by the Myanmar government on the Rohingya population in the western part of that country. Many human rights observers believe that this attack on and forced removal of the Muslim ethnic group is a clear case of genocide, and, as is commonly the case, an episode in ethnic cleansing that produces both indifference and a sense of powerlessness in Western countries like the United States. As Samantha Power argues in A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, there is a general reluctance to use the term “genocide” until the facts on the ground are better known. Furthermore, assigning the term genocide imposes a moral obligation on the observers, an obligation some think is best delayed if not avoided.

The Myanmar army’s actions have been going on for more than a year and have resulted in more than 10,000 deaths, many gruesome, and the forced evacuation of more than 400,000 people, out of total Rohingya population of one million.  The incident has attracted attention because the de facto head of the Myanmar government, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has been reluctant to rein in the military that professes to be waging a necessary counter-insurgency against Rohingya rebels who demand greater autonomy. In a predominately Buddhist country the Rohingyas are among the most maltreated of minority populations in the world.

The photograph dramatically captures the desperate fate of the displaced person and has a way of calling up other images of the voluntary and forced migrations of the global downtrodden.

For instance, we may recall the young members of tribal peoples from Mali and Sudan who are forced to move because of desertification and look to Europe as a place to make a fresh start. More than a fair number of these immigrants have drowned near the Mediterranean island paradise of Lampedusa 70 nautical miles from North Africa. Yet more than a quarter million have survived and create a crisis for this Italian outpost, the frontline in the application of Italy’s stringent refugee policy. For instance, we may remember the photo of three-year old Syrian Aylan Kurdi lying face down on a beach in Turkey, a photo which spurred the international concern for the refugee crisis in Assad’s Syria. For instance, we may recollect the video of five-year old Omran Daqneesh, wiping dust from his face after being pulled from a leveled building in Aleppo, an image that “went viral.” Seeing pictures of Syrian children who were victims of Assad’s chemical warfare strategy, our President, though late to the realization of this cost of war, announced a change in his approach to that protracted conflict.

How can photographs like these break through to our consciousness and arouse our empathy and our charity in a world in which 95 million photos and videos are uploaded into the Instagram platform daily and where 40 billion photos have been circulated at this site since its inception?

It’s a question that the editors of the January/February 2018 issue of The Atlantic Monthly pondered when they asked about the most influential photograph in history. Not surprisingly, three commentators pointed out that photography had a tremendous impact on reversing the America public’s support for the war in Viet Nam. Eddie Adam’s iconic Saigon Execution (1968) depicts the murder of a Viet Cong sympathizer by a South Viet Nam military officer; the photo captures the moment of impact when the officer discharges a bullet into the victim’s temple. And Nick Ut’s photograph (1972) of the 9-year old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, napalm burns over her body running naked down a village lane, captures the random cruelty of this war. Finally, John Filo’s 1970s photograph of a young woman grieving over her slain Kent State classmates brought the war home in a powerful way.

Other nominees for the distinction: the photo of the open casket of the disfigured Emmett Till (1955) ignited the Civil Rights movement; the photograph of the atomic cloud over Hiroshima made us starkly aware of humankind’s capacity for destruction; another aerial photograph, that of the earth from the moon taken by astronaut William Anders (1968), underscored the fragility of the planet and our common humanity on “spaceship earth” and gave impetus to the environmental movement.

Will Tomas Munati’s photograph of the human catastrophe in Myanmar join the ranks of these iconic photographs that changed public thinking and launched social movements? Will commentators at mid-century claim that this image was the beginning of a global movement to address through collective action the tragedies of ethnic cleansing?

Most likely not. Indeed, the contrary might be true:  that Munati’s work and the work of many other photojournalists painfully reminds us of our impotence to combat the pernicious forces of tribalism, economic and environmental distress, and human greed. And worse: In the Age of the Image it may only have the staying power of an instantly self-destructive Snapchat photo.

The best that might be claimed of this photo might be that it is grouped with The Afghan Girl, Steve McCurry’s 1984 National Geographic cover photo of Sharbat Gula, a photograph that became the most recognized in the history of the magazine.







About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

2 thoughts on “The Most Influential Photograph in History?

  1. Dominic Colonna
    December 30, 2017 at 2:05 pm

    Excellent and informative reflection, Mike. I thought the picture was powerful, too, and The Raft of the Medusa came to my mind, too. Your reflection is thoughtful and reminds us of big moments in our history and the power of art.

  2. December 29, 2017 at 3:15 pm

    Can this image be considered the most influential when it is so recent?

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