The first thing to say is that Mandel Ngan’s image of Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, for as much attention as it drew on Twitter on Thursday, seems to materialize out of thin air. That’s partly because the photo, using height to express the scale of the humanitarian crisis below, is such a quiet one. It’s about witnessing, an intimate exercise that befits a singular focus.
As such, I’m sure the majority of those who saw it had no idea it had anything to do with John Kerry. In fact, Ngan was the pool photographer on Kerry’s flyover and visit to the camp, and without it, the photo wouldn’t have existed. Perhaps it’s not a stretch to also assume the photo was the most constructive thing that came out of the visit. (And I’m not just saying that because this Reuters slideshow incorporating the photo doesn’t even have Kerry in it.)
I’d say that the photo of Kerry on the ground being lectured to and stared down by the Syrian refugees chosen to meet with him is significant too. But then, people already know how compromised that picture is — the U.S. trying not to get too involved while trying not to look too callous. (Kerry reminded the refugees that, although America is not willing to take direct measures in Syria, it is footing a lot of the bill, through relief agencies, for the refugee camps.) Still, politicians come and go whereas images of the cost are more indelible.
(photos: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images/Pool. caption 1: An aerial view shows the Zaatari refugee camp on July 18, 2013 near the Jordanian city of Mafraq, some 8 kilometers from the Jordanian-Syrian border. The northern Jordanian Zaatari refugee camp is home to 115,000 Syrians. caption 2: US Secretary of State John Kerry (C-R) and his Jordanian counterpart Nasser Judeh (C) meet with Syrian refugees at the Zaatari refugee camp near the Jordanian city of Mafraq on July 18, 2013. (Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images/Pool)