The Power of Narrative, or; What’s the Difference Between these Two Photos?

Posted on July 22, 2011


A photo topping a Foreign Policy article on today’s Oslo bombing really made me stop and think about the event. Earlier in the morning, along with perhaps thousands of other anti-war people around the world, I was annoyed at the prominent position the story has taken in our headlines, despite the fact that, in terms of body count, it would be an ordinary affair in one of the many countries we’ve turned into battlefields over the last decade. Seeing the photo made it real again, and I felt some remorse for taking it so lightly.

Imagine, then, how short our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would have been, if we had focused as much emotional energy and attention on the people we’ve killed in those countries, as we’ve paid to our allies in Norway. If every time one of our drones  slaughtered the members of a wedding party, their photos appeared next to the article, their blood and injuries just as real. What if it was front page news when an Afghan teen was killed in a drone attack? What if people were googling for a photo to make it real in their own mind? Because they wanted to make it real, so that they could push away their apathy, and hold on to their humanity; to help them care about what’s important, in a sea of daily and petty events and cares. What if every Afghan life was as important as that of a Norwegian?

I’m not naive enough to think that the odd appearance of such photos as this:

…would turn the tide. After all, we all got a good look at Abu Ghraib, and somehow it just rolled right off of our backs.

But if we saw such images regularly as the images we associate with our war effort, and if the media and our punditry treated such people with the same respect they do Norwegians [the FP article suggest it’s Norway’s 9-11], our conversation about war might go a little differently.

Unless there really is something very different between these two photos that I’m missing.