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Syrian doctors treat a child following a suspected chemical attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province, Syria. Edlib Media Center, via AP, File

How much power can an image actually wield?

Conventional wisdom maintains that images hold “power” to sway public opinion, to move us to action and to ultimately “change history.”

In early April, gut-wrenching images seem to have once again awakened the world to the human atrocities happening in Syria. Following a chemical bomb attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, graphic photos and videos documented the horrific effects of the banned nerve agent sarin. Millions bore witness to excruciating human suffering: gasping, choking, writhing and death. More than 500 people were injured, with at least 86 deaths, including 28 children.

Citizens and politicians – President Trump included – felt compelled to respond. But how long will global concern for Syrian suffering last? Where will it lead?

As journalism and psychology scholars interested in the effects of imagery, we study the ability of jarring photos and videos to move people from complacency to action. While graphic imagery can have an immediate impact, the window of action – and caring – may be smaller than you’d think.

A political catalyst?

Photographs and videos – through their perceived authenticity – can sway public opinion and move audiences (and governments) to action. Research suggests that the graphic photo of slain Emmett Till in his open casket served as a “political catalyst” in mobilizing Americans to action in the civil rights movement. Similarly, news images have been credited as playing an important role in ending the Vietnam War.

But not all scholars agree. A recent article argued that it was a “myth” that the iconic “napalm girl” photo swayed public opinion and hastened the end of the Vietnam War.

This image of a father crying as he held his twin babies who were killed during a suspected chemical weapons attack is thought to have spurred Trump into action. Alaa Alyousef via AP

We must also look to psychology to understand the impacts of emotional news content. Research demonstrates that audiences need an emotional connection – and not merely a “just-the-facts” reporting approach – as “prerequisite for political action” when it comes to appreciating the importance of distant mass suffering. And imagery can trigger this emotional connection by overcoming the psychic numbing that occurs when casualties mount, images blur and lost lives become merely dry statistics.

Certainly the vivid, closeup images of sarin attack victims were resonant enough to break through the complacency of people and politicians accustomed to bad news emerging from Syria. In President Trump’s retaliatory response, he seemed to recognize the value of the Syrian lives depicted in the horrific photos and videos.

“When you kill innocent children,” he said during a news conference, “that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line – many, many lines.”

The limits of an image

Nonetheless, even though the attacks may have heightened U.S. concerns over the wars in Syria, the photographic documentation of the suffering in Syria isn’t new.

The 2015 photos of a tiny Syrian boy’s lifeless body resting face down in the sand similarly stirred our collective consciousness. Within hours of its release, the photo had reached 20 million people through Twitter, with many more millions seeing it on the front pages of newspapers the next day. Afterwards, government restrictions on accepting refugees were loosened while private donations to organizations like the Red Cross spiked dramatically.

A year later haunting images of a young boy in the back of an ambulance, caked in dirt and blood, galvanized the world.

But the emotional and compassionate responses to both photographs were short-lived. The bombing of civilians in Syria continued. Refugees continued risking their lives to escape the war zone.

And in the wake of the recent chemical attack, one might expect the Trump administration to rethink their refugee policy, to begin accommodating Syrians seeking refuge in the United States and to develop a coherent approach to preventing Bashir al-Assad from renewing his campaign of dropping shrapnel-filled barrel bombs on Syrians. But we have yet to see this happen.

As we wrote last fall following the publication of the images of the Syrian boy in the ambulance, “a photograph, no matter how emotionally wrenching, can only do so much.”

Yes, it can create a window of time when we’re motivated to act, and we’ll usually do so if we have effective options to pursue. This could mean a charitable donation at the individual level or, collectively, a surge of political will. However, psychology research from the “arithmetic of compassion” suggests that sympathy for distant human suffering declines when we are presented with rising body counts. Moreover, if the options for helping others seem too narrow or ineffective, we turn away and stop caring.

Images can alert us to the horrors of war and the true importance of human lives. But as we have seen time and again, photographs and news footage of human suffering generally precipitate a short-term emotional reaction, rather than a sustained humanitarian response.

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