How should media cover children in conflict?

It is a haunting image: a woman dressed in blue, her head covered, holding a child’s body covered in a white sheet.

The photograph is by Palestinian photographer Mohammed Salem, who works with Reuters. It was taken on Oct. 17, 2023, and won the World Press Photo award last month.

Upon closer inspection, the woman is wearing a denim abaya — something that a woman in Gaza may wear every day. The details of the clothes push me back into the reality I am trying to escape from. What I am looking at is not just an image, not a painting or representation of something abstract of far. I am looking at a woman, probably my age, in the deepest of pain, holding a child she loves who has been killed. A child who is the same size and age as my older son.

In October, soon after Israel attacked Gaza in retaliation to Hamas’s attack, an Argentine journalist asked me what I thought of how the media were handling children’s images when reporting on the war.

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a U.S.-based organisation where I work part-time leading their Early Childhood Journalism Initiative, has published a manual about how to report on children (which I co-wrote). One of the fellows from one of our programmes, Syrian journalist Hadeel Arja, even put together a guide on how to amplify voices of children in war preserving their dignity.

One of the elements that many experts agree with is that photographs should not portray deceased people, or people in the process of dying. Children’s identities and dignity should be protected (just like everybody else’s) — but with even more care.

A cautionary tale?

There is the cautionary tale of the so-called “napalm girl”. You probably know the picture, which was one of the most defining of the Vietnam War: a naked girl is running away in pain after a deadly napalm attack on her town, her expression of anguish surrounded by other stunned children. The girl in that picture became known eventually as “napalm girl”.

Kim Phuc Phan Thi, who was 9 years old at the time, now lives in Canada and works with the Kim Foundation International, which provides aid to child victims of war around the world. While the scars are still visible on her body, and she still lives with the pain, she has finally managed to shake the shame and weight of that picture from her, she wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times, sharing important insights on how we should think of children during traumatic world events: “photographs, by definition, capture a moment in time. But the surviving people in these photographs, especially the children, must somehow go on. We are not symbols. We are human. We must find work, people to love, communities to embrace, places to learn and to be nurtured.”

But another question keeps popping up.

In October, I was in Spain, and in the small town I was staying, Aranda de Duero, there was a march against the war on Gaza. There was clear anti-Israeli sentiment, but there was also a lot of rage against journalists. One woman spoke of the censorship carried out by media organisations who are not willing to show images of dying children, which she believed are “sugarcoating” Israel’s brutal campaign.

I understand that anger at the media. Our feeds are full of uncensored images, which a lot of media are (to me rightly) unwilling to publish. But where does this leave journalists? How can the public understand just how barbaric a war is if they are not shown unedited pictures?

And for us journalists, how do we depict the daily indignities, pain and loss that comes with war? What do we do if the victims are children, if bombs strike on hospitals, playgrounds, schoolyards? What are you supposed to show, and what are we supposed to hide?

The World Press Photo winner is a clear example of how to handle this with care and dignity. The expression of pain is registered in time without showing any gory details. A child’s death is horrible in and of itself. There is no need to explain further.

There are other ways that I have seen photographers portray Gaza children with dignity — without hiding the truth.

This picture, by freelance photographer Samar Abu Elouf, shows the horror in the gaze of these children as they hear rockets nearing.

Or there is another way to go about it: showing the images of children who have been killed while they were still alive — like this story published in The New York Times. Youmna Shaqalih, 4 months: “She was the center of attention. Her mother, Maram, loved to dress her up for pictures. She was killed in October. Her mother was killed in a separate strike 11 days later.”

The world’s most dangerous place for children

You may ask why I am talking exclusively about Gaza. Some readers did ask, in fact, after I wrote something about Gaza a few months ago.

Over the past year, children have died in wars in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Myanmar, Haiti, Sudan, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia. They have died in Israel, victims of Hamas. But what is happening in Gaza is unprecedented.

UNICEF declared that Gaza is the world’s most dangerous place for children — under-14s represent approximately 40% of the Gaza Strip’s entire population of 2.3 million, one of the youngest populations in the world. In February, UN Women reported that women and children represent 70% of the casualties since the war began.

Two visuals.

One by Mona Chalabi, about the density of population in Gaza.

And the other one that is called “six wars old”, and talks about the trauma of young people in Gaza whose childhood was marked by war after war.

Images that cannot be unseen

“There should be no moral squishiness about any of this. If children are being slaughtered, if a father is carrying his dead daughter through a bombed-out street, or if there is footage of dead children in southern Israel, which, for now, seems to have been shown mostly in a selective way through screenings by the Israel Defense Forces, the world, at large, should see that,” writes Jay Caspian Kang in The New Yorker.

Kang continues: “Images of dead children have great emotional and political power because most people in the world rightfully agree that their deaths are intolerable.”

But what happened when the photo of two-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian boy who washed up dead on the shores of Turkey, hit the front pages of international media? Did Europe change its lethal migration policies? Was he the last child to die in the water?

He wasn’t. Yet his name will forever be associated with an undignified, horrible, terrible death that he did not deserve.

Yes, there are images that cannot be unseen. This war is showing us that horror is unending. But unfortunately, I don’t think that these horrible pictures can change the course of the war.

What do their families want? What would these children want? What will it take for things to change?

“Images that violate the privacy of children, in my opinion, do not convey reality; instead, they fuel hatred and animosity. Such images do not stop wars,” says Jamal Saidi, former chief photographer in the Levant region at Reuters in the Children First guide.

Those who died with no voice

So, who ultimately decides, and who looks after the rights of those who have died, with no voice?

What would I want, I ask myself, if I were not in the safe country where I live, with a privileged passport? I would want images of myself, and my children, to portray our lives as they were ongoing, not when they came to an end. I would want for my pain to be immortalised and to penetrate everything, just as the World Press Photo does.

And can I even really empathise without being there myself? The mother of Emmett Till, a Black boy who was abducted, tortured, and lynched in Mississippi in 1955 at the age of 14, insisted that his brutalized body be photographed so the world would be forced to witness the horror of his death.

But unless we have an explicit need, we should not show the corpses. We will never be able to unsee them, or maybe we will turn numb to them, normalise them, think they are paintings, or things on our screens. But they are children who were killed — and our pain needs to focus on keeping them alive.

This week’s essay is long, so I will skip the recommendations. They will be back next time!

With love and care, 
Irene Caselli

📣 The First 1,000 Days is edited by community member and friend, Shaun Lavelle.

Photo credits and alt-text: GR Stocks su Unsplash, Image of a hand holding a white chess piece delivering checkmate to the black king on a chessboard.

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