Credits: Guido Fuà.

Photojournalism: how images can shape our empathy

In the current visual culture, images catch the reader’s attention, absorbed by tons of news and headlines. Therefore, they rule at the top of the media hierarchy. As a symbol, photography condenses a million words in a little rectangle, and as soon as the readers bump into a picture, they immediately start to meditate on its implicit message. This is why photography it’s so powerful. As a result, photojournalism shapes our empathy without using a single word. Nilüfer Demir, Nick Ut, Kevin Carter challenged the crowd’s sensibility around humanitarian issues with their Alan KurdiNapalm Girl e The Vulture and The Little Girl portraits. These iconic photoshoots underline stories of war, violence, and famine. 

Aesthetics meets compassion through photojournalism images

Behind the images of a photojournalist: empathy's birth place.Similar to every media, photojournalism witnesses through images joy, but also injustice and violence. These kinds of themes provoke a sense of contradiction since photojournalists don’t interfere to stop a violent episode. Their primary focus is to report inequalities and abuses: they can watch but not stand in the way. Where does their (and our) compassion go? How can we concede this kind of mechanism? Simply, we can’t. Hence, contradiction is explained. Photojournalism pictures help us get in touch with the distant realities of unreachable countries.

Images of war, famine, and poverty constantly clash with the cult of aesthetics. That is because our instinct drives us to change reality, from simple objects to ideas. The illusion of a slightly more beautiful world helps us to keep our existence going. The moment we see a photojournalism work, these idyllic fantasies vanish.

Photojournalism: how images shape our empathyThis explains the logic behind Alan Kurdi’s photomontages, which went viral. The original photo portrays the lifeless body of the Syrian child, shipwrecked on the coasts of the island of Kos, in 2015. Moved by empathy, some people have thus given Alan a pair of wings, a comfortable bed to rest on, even a pen to make him able to study.

When empathy ends up in our memory’s archive 

Photojournalism always gets the press’s attention, due to its impact on public opinion. However, these kinds of front-page images shortly become marginal, until they eventually disappear within a week. That mechanism is well known in mass media communication since the so-called agenda setting has become a slave to our intermittent attention. Once out of our sight, the symbolic image against violence also fades from our memory, and our perception of the world comes fragmented and muffled.


Fausto Colombo, 2018. “Imago Pietatis”. Sierra Leone Makassa School. Maestri della Fotografia: Nick Ut. Pinterest: Kevin Carter. Pinterest: Nilüfer Demir. A little angel named Alan Kurdi (Photo Credits: HA Hellyer).

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