Inescapable power of images

Perhaps it started with the invention and democratization of the phone camera… The sense of wonder that was so easily associated with photography began to wane.

It has been a while now. Maybe I owe it to growing up in the hills, or to the erratic electricity supply in those hills, or to the birds and the squirrels and cows and whatnots doting the mist-heavy framework that I call my home in the hills. It has been a while now that I watched the TV for news. The constant screaming, the endless debates, the scrolling lines that fill half the screen are things I could happily do without, and do.

I talk of television here to talk of images and the omnipresent power they seem to have over us. Images are everywhere. Images on TV, images in books, on the streets, in newspapers, the idea of images on radio and the bombarding of images on the internet – there possibly is no way you can escape the power of images. But do these images continue to have the power to break, to heal, to affect, to move, to please, to pain, to do anything at all, I wonder.

Some decades ago, the haunting picture that Steve McCurry, an institution in himself, took of a beautiful blue-eyed girl in Afghanistan is still a sharp image in the mind's eye. As is the poignant image of the man begging for his life in the Gujarat riots, the flames of killer fire reflected in his eyes. Old images, images from a time when the bombarding was still not as bad as it is today. An image has the power to trigger that one thing that is the need of the hour. But in an era when images, images and images are everywhere and everywhere, do they make the same impact as they used to? Will we still remember that one image decades from now, when that one image is constantly replaced and buried under that other image and the next one and the next one?

Perhaps it started with the invention and democratization of the phone camera. When everyone had the power of creating a representation of a thing, a person, a view, a perspective, somehow, the charm and marvel that used to be associated with imagery seems to have been lost. When everyone could take a picture, a lot of them began to take great pictures. The sense of wonder that was so easily associated with photography began to wane. Not that there still aren’t photographers whose images continue to be magical, of course. But that marvel, is that still there?

Was it the wide web that did this? Turn to social media, or turn to any of the dozens of websites we bookmark and frequent and each page is laden with images, even as the number of words reduce every passing day. A picture after all, is a thousand words. And even a thousand words are too long for the busy busy busy person. Images, images everywhere, not a memory to hold on to.
Can an image still have the power to affect so deeply that it becomes a curve in the road? The things that go viral, they are not always important things.

Heart wrenching image

But then there are the others. Like the utterly heart wrenching image of the tiny red-shirt baby boy lying face down on a beach. That image, debated over endlessly regarding the ethics of taking, and then publishing such a picture, brought too closely to home the gravity of the European refugee crisis. Perhaps it was because it was a baby. Perhaps because there are still a few non-cynics in the world. Nevertheless, that image, carried everywhere in the world, is perhaps the Vietnamese girl child image of this 21st century, to be remembered in books of history in decades to come by, carried as a stark reminder that this, this is the level to which humankind could stoop to make that extra buck.

That image perhaps, depressing as it was, is also an image of hope. It brought home the fact that there were still situations where the world would set aside its differences to feel distraught, to feel sadness and horror and to feel helpless and hopeful at the same time. Maybe there will be more images like these. Not of babies on the beach, but images that are like the slap on the face of an uncaring, cynical, weary world. And when people react, that is when you know that images are still relevant, despite the overuse.

When one picture, irrespective of which village it was taken at, irrespective of what it is about, leaves an impression that world weariness will not mask, that is when you know images, photos, pictures, they are what we, this cynical world need. To remind us of our human-ness, to represent what we as a species mean, to ourselves and to those that come after us.


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