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How News Photographs Can Affect Public Opinion


Sometimes a news photograph captures a story in a way that rises above the noise of daily headlines. The Associated Press published one such photo this week taken on the banks of the Rio Grande. The image shows a parent and child lying face down in the reeds at the river's edge. The little girl's head lies next to her father's. Her arm is around his neck. The father's name was Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez. His 23-month-old daughter was named Valeria. They reportedly came from El Salvador and drowned trying to swim across the river that divides the U.S. from Mexico.

We're joined now by David Hume Kennerly, who is a photographer who won the Pulitzer for his news photography in 1971, including his coverage of Vietnam. He has helped choose Pulitzer winners since then. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.


SHAPIRO: What was your reaction to this photograph when you first saw it? What did you think?

KENNERLY: It's shocking to me. I still never get over it after seeing these things firsthand for a whole career. It just went right to the center of my heart. I was really sad about it.

SHAPIRO: What was it that affected you about it?

KENNERLY: When I first saw the image, I had a parental reaction. I'm a dad. I have three boys, and I think as a parent to see this, it breaks your heart. That was first. First and foremost, it was a human reaction. And then I started thinking about it as a news photo. But the actual moment overwhelmed me.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. That echoes what the photographer told The Guardian newspaper. Her name is Julia Le Duc, and part of what she said was, quote, "you get numb to it, but when you see something like this, it re-sensitizes you. You could see that the father had put her inside his T-shirt so the current wouldn't pull her away." Is that what these photographs do - pierce our consciousness and elevate these events?

KENNERLY: Well, yes, they do, and I think that the job as a photographer - Julia Le Duc - and I totally understand what she has gone through. I've gone through it myself. Our job is to show you things you don't want to see but have to see. Anytime you see innocent people dying trying to accomplish something or killed by war - I mean, I was in Vietnam for two years, and I've covered other conflicts. And the people who suffer are the innocent people like these two trying to get over to the United States.

And I think the other part of that is this picture will be used politically on both sides of the issue. There will be those who say they're trying to escape oppression to get the United States, and they should be allowed in and others who say, well, if they hadn't tried to get here illegally, that wouldn't have happened. So these are not clear-cut examples of right, wrong, black and white.

SHAPIRO: There's public news value to an image like this, but you're also photographing a real human being who is no longer alive. Is there a consideration of a person's privacy, a person's dignity?

KENNERLY: Always, and it's a question I've had to deal with pretty much every day of my career. Do you want to intrude on someone else's grief, privacy, death? In this case, the answer is there's no way around it. Having been doing this a long time and being around other photographers or working with other photographers, none of us - none of us - get any joy out of taking an image like this. And it goes right to that question, like, where do you draw the line? There have been times that I have chosen not to take a picture. In this one, anybody would have had to do it, I'm afraid.

SHAPIRO: You've chosen Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs and taken some yourself. So what do those images have in common that break through the noise?

KENNERLY: They go to your psyche. Nick Ut's photo of Kim Phuc running down the road after being hit by napalm, Eddie Adams' picture of the Saigon execution - these pictures, once you see them, are in your brain forever. You should think about these pictures. This is real life, and our job is to show that.

SHAPIRO: This picture has been in the public eye for less than a week, but would you put it among those great images from the last 50 years that have won top awards and that remain on our mind today?

KENNERLY: It's right up there. It's a big story told in a really small, tragic way. We've been hearing about what's going on, you know, every day, but all of a sudden now you have an image to go with the story.

SHAPIRO: David Hume Kennerly, thank you for speaking with us today.

KENNERLY: You're welcome.

SHAPIRO: Kennerly is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.