Nothing like the macabre hellscapes of Hieronymus Bosch to instill fear into the medieval Christian believer’s mind. Nothing like the pathos filled baroque paintings of Rubens to better glorify the power and grandeur of the religious experience. Nothing like the chiaroscuro of Caravaggio – dirty feet, wrinkled faces, tavern settings – to reveal the human side of the godly.
Nowhere a bleaker outlook on humanity and deeper fear of insanity than in Goya’s Black Paintings.
Never has there been a more haunting picture of the horror of war than Nick Ut’s photograph of Kim Phúc, badly burned by napalm bombs, fleeing, naked towards his lens. Never, after the South African photojournalist Kevin Carter took his disturbing Pulitzer prize photograph of a Sudanese child being stalked by a vulture, has hunger been the same. Never, since Steve McCurry in 1984 immortalized the sea-green eyes of the young, Afghan girl Sharbat Gula at a refugee camp in Pakistan, has the West met a stare as powerful.
A picture, so the saying goes, is worth a thousand words.
Pictures show and testify. They disturb, unnerve, scare, horrify. They impress, touch, inspire.
But a picture is not, nor should be, a policy.
The image of the lifeless body of a toddler, pictured face down in a red t-shirt and shorts, stranded on a beach in Turkey has reverberated across the world. It is the saddest, most solitary, most horrible picture imaginable. Painful, horrifying, spine-chilling. Shameful and disgraceful.
It should not have come to this.
The current immigration/refugee crisis is not a new phenomenon. So far, this year, an estimated 2000 people – men, women and children – are feared to have died in the Mediterranean alone. In August, the decomposed bodies of seventy suspected migrants were found in an abandoned truck on the expressway between Vienna and Budapest. Refugee camps like those in Azraq and Zaatari in Jordan but also those in Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt are bursting at the seams.
In July this year, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a sobbing Palestinian teenager Reem Sahwil she could not stay in Germany because the country ‘can’t manage’ more refugees. Mrs. Merkel was severely criticised for arguing that questions of immigration cannot be approached anecdotally. Meanwhile, Mrs. Merkel’s discourse has changed. And all because of a photograph.
Good intentions? Political opportunism? A show of heart and solidarity or shortsighted ignorance? Left versus right? No matter the viewpoint, policy makers can’t be allowed to sidestep and ignore a problem only to come up with sudden, rhetorical half measures following a pang of conscience, sparked by a powerful photograph.
Etymologically, to govern means to steer, to rule. To rule, regulare, from regula, straight stick.
No, one need not rule without a heart.
But if we wish to show our heart and reach out, we should do so in a sustainable, honest and worthy way. This implies structures, systems, cooperation, organization and planning rather than panic and punctual band-aid style relief. A cacophony of pictures and cheap rhetorics, whether by self inflated politicians or celebrities, are not going to help the many hundreds of thousands, in need of support. Changing the lyrics of a song will not change their fate.
A picture may be worth a thousand words yet sometimes a wise word is all it takes.
Preachers in the desert.