The Faces of Global Conflict

No breaking news story today is complete without a captivating image. These images become associated with all aspects of the story, and sometimes become the story.

This has certainly become the case in many recent headlines, where the story becomes less about the issue, and more about the image being displayed on our screens.

Photojournalism aims to capture an event or scene in the moment, or as naturally as possible. Photojournalists have produced countless priceless images that have been shared across the world for those who cannot be in the same moment as the photographer– visually telling stories that otherwise cannot be told as well with words alone.

Two of my (and the media’s) favorite images share similar stories–they both feature children. Both children live in war-torn countries and both represent millions of people just like themselves. Neither thought they would become subjects of viral images.

But now, both have become the faces of global issues in the media.

The first, entitled “Afghan Girl,” made headlines after appearing on the cover of National Geographic in 1985. This Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph went viral for the young girl’s stunning eyes, drawing readers to the story. It was a first-hand account of the conflict in Afghanistan and the refugee camps among which this girl lived.

The story itself was undoubtedly an amazing journalistic piece; but all people wanted to know was who the girl on the cover was.

The answer came seventeen years later, in 2002, when National Geographic released this piece, revealing the identity of the girl and her story since the original image was taken.

The life story of Sharbat Gula represents that of the millions of other refugees that have been displaced by war. The media highlighted this story because the image of this young girl (as well as the equally powerful image of her seventeen years later) helps the rest of the world visualize the hardships of those in that war-torn region.

Photo Credit: Steve McCurry/National Geographic

Sharbat Gula in 2002. Photo Credit: Steve McCurry/National Geographic

This girl and her story made headlines twice and then was promptly forgotten about by the media and the public.

Similarly, the recent image of a Syrian boy spread like wildfire across media outlets for its emotional impact. This image (accompanied by the video and TIME’s account of the incident) of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, illustrates an all-too-common scene in Aleppo and other cities in Syria.

Omran was pulled from a building that had been hit in an airstrike. Covered in dust and blood, he was placed in an ambulance and sat silently, and in shock.

The video and still image made headlines for about a week or so, and has since been pushed to the side for favor of new headlines in the 24-hour news cycle.

These images and their stories are not anything new – the world is used to stories about war and we are all aware that these conflicts continue in a country far away from our homes.

But we continue to see these headlines pop up every now and then as if they are breaking news. Sure, the images are shocking and emotional and definitely draw attention. But what good is it if we all move on from the shock of the story once it is deemed “old news”?

Omran Daqneesh in Syria. Photo Credit: AFP

Omran Daqneesh in Syria. Photo Credit: AFP

The media should share these stories and they should share the very real images of the people who are stuck in the middle of conflict. But the media should also encourage its audience not to just forget that these events are very real.

Rather than pretending that these stories are unusual, these images should serve as a constant reminder of what is going on in the world.

Sharbat and Omran, and the many others captured in stunning images of conflict, did not volunteer to be the faces of their conflicts.

Media outlets should take advantage of the emotional impact that comes with these images, but they should not treat them as case-by-case instances of ongoing events. These stories are very real and very important, and should be reported as such– even when there isn’t an image to go along with it.

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