A Rare Photo of a Rarely Photographed Crisis

An image can make an atrocity seem more real to the American public—but why do people need to see in order to feel?

The Rio Grande near the location where the bodies of a Salvadoran migrant and his 23-month-old daughter were found after they drowned (Loren Elliott / Reuters)

It’s hard to describe the thought process that ensues when you first look at a photograph of two dead bodies—one of a man and one of a small child clinging to him—floating in the shallow water near a riverbank. Partly because the process of making sense of it is just so fast; the tragedy that has occurred is communicated, beyond a shadow of a doubt, immediately.

A photograph that has been circulating virally online (and that framed the discussion of immigration onstage at the first Democratic presidential debate), credited to Julia De Luc and published by the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, depicts the bodies of a Salvadoran migrant father and his daughter who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande, reportedly after receiving the news that his family would be unable to present themselves to United States authorities and request asylum. (Due to concerns about the sensitive nature of the photo, it does not appear in this article, but can be viewed here at the AP News website.) The daughter was a month shy of her second birthday. Her mother, who survived, is depicted in another image De Luc captured, standing on the shore and gesturing toward the water. The horror, again, is instantly recognizable.

But there’s another chilling aspect of these images that, by contrast, takes a long moment to sink in: given the scope of the crisis at the border, how little photographic documentation exists. The image, which is now available in several slightly different iterations credited differently across the wire services, is a rare one from the ongoing crisis at the border. The American public has heretofore seen few images of this crisis, and the response to the recent photo has been swift and outraged.

But there are a few reasons why it would be difficult, and arguably unethical, to simply create or disseminate more footage.

For starters, “going rogue” to capture images could be a risky pursuit for a photographer; taking unauthorized photos while under the supervision of an official could have consequences, such as a loss of future access for that photographer or publication. Independently walking around taking pictures could be dangerous, too, given that the U.S.-Mexico border is an area where armed guards, smugglers, migrants, and border authorities are all present and on high alert.

There is also an ongoing controversy over the publishing of images of dead bodies that could complicate how photojournalists handle the U.S.-Mexico border crisis. In the United States, it is sometimes considered offensive to publish images of dead bodies, and there is a debate over whether it is appropriate to do even if the images are newsworthy. The publication of photos depicting American soldiers’ dead bodies, for example, has long been taboo; news-media photos of the coffins of American soldiers killed in combat were famously outlawed by the George H. W. Bush administration. The ban was lifted under the Obama administration, but “photographs of our war dead remain scarce,” according to a 2018 New York Times story. (Similarly, it would be widely considered in poor taste to publish photos of the bodies of victims of school-shooting massacres. )

The New York Times did, it’s worth noting, publish the picture of the migrant father and daughter, and editors explained their reasons for doing so in a follow-up story later. “At least a dozen editors discussed the image” after it surfaced to decide whether to run it, according to the follow-up story. Beth Flynn, the deputy photo editor for the Times, explained that ultimately, they ran the photo “because it bore witness to what is happening at the border between the United States and Mexico right now.”

The controversy over whether to publish photos of migrants who have died in the border crisis is further complicated by the seeming double standard that comes into play when the photographed bodies belong to non-Americans or nonwhite people. The same Times story went on to explain that if refraining from publishing photographs of Americans’ dead bodies is generally considered an act of respect, publishing photographs of non-Americans’ dead bodies could be understood as an act of disrespect. “When it’s common practice to publish photographs of war casualties from other countries but not to publish photographs of war casualties from the United States, then the very fact of visual access to the dead marks them as ‘other,’” the author Sarah Sentilles wrote.

That images of the dead bodies of brown and black people are so often circulated for this precise purpose—to wake people up to ongoing brutality—raises some uncomfortable questions about what it takes to earn the attention and empathy of the Western world, as Kainaz Amaria, the visuals editor at Vox, wrote on Twitter. “Folks (mostly white) use this argument [that these images can serve to illustrate the  human costs of political crises] A LOT when trying to justify the circulation of a graphic image, usually of a dead black/brown person,” she tweeted. “I think the better question to ask ourselves is *WHY* do we require images like this to pull folks out of ‘denial’?” (The Times editors reportedly discussed whether they would come to the same conclusion were the photo of two white Americans; ultimately, they decided, they would.)

In the hours since De Luc’s photo began circulating, it has drawn comparisons to other famously devastating photographs of humanitarian crises. The UN refugee agency UNHCR compared the photograph to the image of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian refugee boy whose body washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in 2015 after he and his family had tried to reach Europe. The release of the photos of Kurdi’s body immediately galvanized public concern worldwide over the refugee crisis.

That these photos have such staying power in people’s memories proves a bleak rule: When the public knows about an atrocity but doesn’t see it, it can feel vague or far away.

Much of the public’s knowledge of the family-separation practices and the growing asylum crisis at the border is obtained through secondhand accounts, largely from lawyers who visit the facilities. For example, the Associated Press and New York Times stories that broke the news last week of filthy conditions in border holding facilities and the neglect of children who had been detained separately from their parents relied on testimony from lawyers who had been inside the facilities to work with the children.

A primary reason so few photos of the crisis at the border have been circulated is because photographers and journalists get very little access to the places where the most compelling images might be found. Because border patrol stations and detention centers are tightly controlled areas, policed by armed guards, few if any reporters or photojournalists can simply walk in and document what they see. When photographers are allowed into these facilities at all, their photo opportunities are often heavily supervised. Government officials told The Washington Post this week that the restricted access is due to privacy concerns: “According to one official, the general counsel’s office of the Department of Homeland Security, which supervises border law enforcement agencies, has advised the agency that it is unlawful for third parties to take photographs or videos of ‘pretrial detainees,’ especially of children, who cannot legally consent to such media portrayals,” the Post story reads. Some detention centers, according to the same story, have granted reporters access on the condition that no recordings are made or photographs taken.

Words describing inhumane acts, however, almost never have as profound or as immediate an effect on the reader as an image of those acts would on a viewer. So to many, the concepts of family separation at the border and asylum seekers being denied entry may still seem opaque or abstract, rather than vivid and urgent.

De Luc’s photo—and perhaps more specifically, the reactions to it—bring to mind what initially drew many Americans’ attention to the family-separation practices at the border one year ago: an audio recording, made inside a detention facility and disseminated by ProPublica, in which children could be heard wailing for their parents. Like that audiotape, what the newly released images of the migrant father and daughter who died trying to make it to the United States illustrate most plainly is that sometimes it takes more than eyewitness descriptions to make the public feel urgency about an ongoing crisis. Sometimes, it takes a gutting piece of content, one more visceral and sensory than words on a page—that cannot, as some might put it, be unseen or be unheard—to make the human cost of  an atrocity seem truly real.