Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
September 4, 2015

The Crisis of Leadership

I was hoping to write something about the visual rage of the media and social media this week (and yes, I mean it in both senses of the word). The photos of a Syrian migrant boy washing up on the shores of Turkey (and the ensuing newspaper headlines confronting heads of state with the photos) would seem to have provided the catalyst, the tipping point, the activation of conscience to spur European governments to address and somehow relieve this human flood.

Perhaps what defines our age more than anything, however, is the pathos, the disconnect – the fact that all the imagery of crisis and despair we’re perpetually exposed to only highlights the abject limits of our governing systems, our leaders and the effective expression our humanity.

Since beginning this site (pretty much coincident with Bush 43’s Iraq war,) I have wrung my hands over how much our most thoughtful and dedicated news photographers have responded to flawed, self-serving and self-preserving actions of states around the world by so pulling the lever of irony. Now I’m wondering, though, if that instinct and that response, as a companion to the inadequacy of all the wrenching straight news photography, is the best rhetorical option we’ve got.

So instead of debilitating you with still one more exposure to the boy, Aylan Kurdi, lying facedown in the surf (not to say I won’t offer some humble thoughts about it in the next few days), I pay my respect to the deeper value of a Homer trying to offer some support. The caption reads:

A protester dressed as the character Homer Simpson steps between demonstrators and police in an attempt to stop clashes at the end of a student march in Santiago, Chile, on August 27, 2015. Demonstrators came out to complain about delays in an education overhaul and ask President Michelle Bachelet to fulfill her campaign promise of free education.

Given all the pain, the dysfunction and the handcuffed leadership around the globe right now, the fact this photo can be so comic and humorless, so futile and earnest at the exact same time seems to capture the times just right.

(photo: Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters via The Atlantic Photos of the Week.)

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