The rhetorical agency of this image proposes to firmly establish a relationship between the human conscience and a troubled reality — a punch in the gut that comes from recognition of the enormity of loss and suffering that is Myanmar today. The picture assumes that this lifeless form graphically and unequivocally captures the pain of a nation, as well as the powerlessness of an outside world waiting to come to its aid.
Arousal, Shock, Awareness — and Action?
The rhetoric of this image is infused with emotion — it arouses and awakens fear and shock within the viewer’s imagination. It could be said, however, that the photographer’s intent derives not only from a sense of journalistic responsibility to faithfully record the event, but also from a rhetorical need to energize viewers to take action.
The power of this image also comes from how meanings shift between literal and figurative interpretations, depending on a viewer’s disposition and experience. Further, there is a moral agency in the act of capturing and viewing such an image that is conjoined with aesthetic and journalistic purpose.
The starkness of the image forces itself upon the mind as cause and effect reaction — life to death. The emotional power of the Myanmar image is also tied to our collective memory of other calamities such as Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 tsunami in Asia, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, and many other events, both natural and manmade.
This analysis suggests a logical sequence of cognitive and sociological triggers related to how people respond to pictures of grief and death. There appears to be a change of levels involving emotional recognition here — one that begins with arousal, the punch in the gut shock of seeing a picture like this for the first time.
Next, arousal and shock may lead to a sense of heightened awareness, which is triggered by memories conditioned for us by the repetition and recall of other events in the media. At the same, memories inextricably tied to a whole series of values, beliefs and norms that are unique for each viewer are triggered — setting up a possible course for remediative action and psychological closure.
Unfortunately, although the potential for action exists, it seems we rarely make it this far in the cycle of emotional recognition and response. Why is this? Perhaps it is because we see so many similar images, or, because, although Delano’s picture makes us care, it doesn’t make us care enough to break away from our busy lives and act. Nonetheless, images like this one remain etched into the collective memory of our visual culture.