History demands that we open our eyes | Bleader

History demands that we open our eyes


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Children during the Holocaust
  • Children during the Holocaust
The day after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, I met a photographer at a party who told me that he specialized in bereavement photography, specifically photographs of stillborn babies and babies that have died shortly after birth. I reacted with the emotional response typical to the mention of dead children: I closed my eyes and wrapped my arms around myself, reflexively protecting against the very thought. I asked how he could withstand that kind of pain and wondered, to myself, why anyone would want a photograph of their dead child. I went home and looked at the work on his website, which was sad and beautiful and almost too much to bear. Then I read testimonials from parents who relayed how grateful they were to have those images, no matter how heartbreaking. Because the pictures remind them that, for a few seconds, their child's hand curled around her mother's finger; that their son had a tiny upturned nose and his sister's heart-shaped lips. The images are a reminder that their child existed, if only for a moment, and is more than a name etched into stone.

Photographs help to make things more real, to anchor events in history. Without them, all images are fleeting, lost to the fallibility of memory and passage of time. Without photographs, every day that goes by blurs the details just a little more. That's why we treasure them. They are records of moments and lives that no longer exist. That's also why, as a society, we need them. Photographs present the truth of an event—their ability to be manipulated notwithstanding—in a way that words cannot. Were stories of the Holocaust to be merely passed through oral history to future generations, eventually we would begin to doubt and question the account, because those kinds of atrocities are unimaginable. But we have photographs: of gas chambers, ovens, and piles of naked corpses being bulldozed into the ground. Those images are undeniable.

The impact of a historical account without accompanying images dilutes over time. When we think of genocide, we don't think of the Roman destruction of Carthage—we think of Rwanda, Europe, and of rows of skulls planted like flowers in the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. And yes, it's because these events are fresher in historical memory, but it is also because those events are inextricably linked to images.

Are we even capable of recalling modern atrocities without conjuring the iconic photographs we've come to associate with them? If you think about the Vietnam War, how long will it take you to pull up the image of a naked nine-year-old girl running in horror and agony from her burning village? When photographer Nick Ut snapped that photo in Trang Bang in 1972, it was initially rejected by an editor at the AP for violating the organization's policy against nudity. Had that puritanical dictate been upheld, history would have been denied an image which so starkly illustrates the wanton destruction of war and the defenselessness of innocent civilians against chemical warfare.

We do neither history nor ourselves any favors when we turn away from images. The school nurse at Sandy Hook Elementary recounted in an interview on 60 Minutes that when police led her through the halls in the wake of Friday's shooting, they instructed her to close her eyes. What she ostensibly did not see were the bodies of 20 small children and the six adults who died trying to protect them. Who can fault the police telling her to close her eyes or the nurse for doing so? But until we as a society are willing to open our eyes and commit to historical record the images of what has occurred, violence like this will never stop.

The images we have come to associate with mass shootings aren't doing anything to change the national conversation. Photographs of teddy bears, hand-printed signs, candlelight vigils, and people knelt in prayer do not capture the horror of what has unfolded. To the extent that they can, those images communicate grief and loss. But we have seen them time and time again. And each time a new shooting occurs, we light our candles, come together to pray, and do absolutely nothing to ensure that it won't happen again.

What would happen if we were confronted with the image of 20 schoolchildren shot dead beneath their desks? Twenty children, each riddled with no less than three bullets fired from an automatic rifle designed for war. Would you ever again be able to sit silently by as people argue for the rights of the individual over the good of the collective? Would you ever again be able to deny the physical toll that such ideals exact? And would you ever again be able to listen to something like "guns don't kill people, people kill people" without the image of 20 dead children rushing into that logical gap?

There is nothing more horrific than the image of a dead child. But what if we were willing to put forth images of their violent deaths? Would it finally spur the "meaningful action" our political leaders so frequently and feebly invoke? Would it guarantee that we were reminded not only of their lives, but of their entirely preventable deaths? Would it ensure that these children never faded away, becoming little more in our collective memory than names etched into stone?