THE BLOG

A Picture Can Tell More Than a Thousand Words

11/09/2015 15:36 BST | Updated 10/09/2016 10:12 BST

There aren't many moments in time when we journalists can feel proud of our profession - it gets such a bad press itself! But the recent and ongoing refugee crisis is just such one of those snapshots in time when reporters and photographers simply doing their jobs have changed attitudes and affected political thinking.

While government ministers went on describing as "swarms" those human beings risking their lives crossing dangerous waters between war zones and the safe beaches of Europe, while hundreds of families demonstrated their desperation by throwing themselves onto the rooves of trucks crossing the Channel, and in one case walking almost the complete length of the Channel Tunnel, it was TV reporters who went to the Calais camps, travelled to the Hungarian border, sat on crowded trains at Budapest station and simply interviewed the "swarms". And guess what? They found that they weren't insects. In oh so many cases they were just like us - intelligent, eloquent people in terrible straits. Who wanted the best for their family? Wanted to work, to provide, and yes, even to pay taxes. They just wanted out of the danger.

It started with the TV news bulletins, and then spread to the print media - the idea that these "migrants" or "refugees" might actually be worth listening to. Powerful, fascinating and emotionally moving accounts from these mothers, fathers, kids and orphans started to change our opinions, bring out the compassion in us, and we in turn demanded compassion from our governments.

Then, as if we hardly needed reminding, came an image so powerful, even words were no longer necessary to make the point. It was that terrible, heart-wrenching image of the body of a little boy, Aylan, washed up on the Turkish beach after his family had failed in their attempt to cross to Greece in a pathetically inadequate and overcrowded five metre long dinghy.

That image was wired all over the world, and many picture editors in newspaper offices immediately faced the enormous decision of whether or not to publish it. Such a shocking image can prove the catalyst for change. I know at least two national newspaper editors well - and their opinions (and of course also their readership) are poles apart in their view. One says "No-one should have to see pictures of dead children in our paper." The other stated publicly: "If you were shocked, then the picture has done its job."

It has happened before, many times in the "field of human conflict" - and thanks to journalists and news photographers, it will happen again. Each picture, of course, tells its own story - and there's often a back story, too.

Take one particularly dramatic shot, taken by photojournalist Kevin Carter in the 1993 famine in Sudan. It's a breathtaking shot of a tiny child lying on the desert floor, looking so emaciated that she is surely about to die. About two metres behind her is a vulture, just waiting....

It's a picture that went all over the world and, again, prompted huge debate and motivated politicians. But Carter, it is said, was so haunted by the image and other dreadful things he'd seen, and so hurt by public criticism that he hadn't personally saved the child, that three months after winning the Pulitzer Prize, he committed suicide.

The other incredibly famous photo which is often credited with hastening the end the Vietnam War is the one of a naked young girl running in terror down the road from where her village has just been napalmed. It's often referred to as the Napalm Girl picture, it communicated the horrors of Vietnam in a way words could never describe. Other pictures taken seconds later show that the newsmen rescued her, tended her burns, clothed her and took her to a medical centre. One year on, the man behind the camera was reunited with her and they've stayed friends all these years later!

Over the years, I've worked with many distinguished cameramen and photographers and I can honestly say that, even though many argue that they are able to do their difficult job because the camera eye-piece somehow distances them from reality, they are still often haunted by the things they have to witness.

Over the past few weeks, however, we should all value the job they do so well because sometimes we in our comfy armchairs, and our politicians on those lush leather benches in the House of Commons, need to be graphically shown the reality of what's happening out there in the real, harsh, world. It always helps to be informed.