Image Making for Sympathy (or Lack of)

During our visit to “the ICP at MANA”, we had an opportunity to see a piece of archival material, original photography taken by Gerda Taro in the 1930’s.  Many of her photos were published under Robert Capa, and all of them were about the Spanish Civil War in 1937 – 38.  She died on the battlefield and her relationship with Capa formed an interesting backstory. But what caught my attention was a photo of a child.




Child refugee from Malaga in Almeria, Spain
By Gerda Taro
February 1937, Almeria Spain, gelatin silver, 2-3/16” x 2-1/8”


There are many photographers before Taro who captured the battle, dying solders, and more traditional portraits of military officers. Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, Timothy H. O’Sullivan, and many other 19th century American photographers used photography as a medium to communicate the scene of war to the public years before Taro. But slower film speed and a complicated development process prohibited photographers from being on the scene. Brady, Gardner, and O’Sullivan often photographed only the aftermath of a battle. Slow film speed was also a problem photographing children who could not sit still. It was a common practice to photograph children after their death so the subject did not move, and the image for the remaining family to remember what was lost.



Dead Child
By unknown photographer, Around 1890-1910


Taro may be the first photographer who took an image of a child to convey the message, the civilian suffering of war. We all react to graphic images of war, dead bodies, blood, ruined cities, but especially when we see children in the frame, an innocent and powerless one, causing us to question the cost conflict. This is an image for sympathy, communicating through our common feeling toward children.


One of the key elements of the image is the body gesture and face of the baby. The baby is not in pain, nor crying, but asleep.  Its face is not happy, not sad, but neutral. Its right arm is shaped as if they are looking for a mother to hold onto. It has a classic composition of western Christian painting. The shape of child refugee from Malaga by Taro immediately reminded me of a painting by Caravaggio.




Sleeping Cupid
Caravaggio, 1608, oil on canvas, 72 cm x 105 cm


It is not just Caravaggio but many painters created similar images of a child to tell the story of Bible, the virgin Madonna and sleeping Christ.




The Virgin with the Sleeping Christ Child
(Madonna with Sleeping Christ Child)
By Orazio Gentileschi, 1610, 99.8 cm x 85.3 cm


An image search on the Internet results in thousands of similar images. They all have something in common, sleepy innocent face of a child, twisted body, often complemented by a background with velvet or soft silky fabric to contrast the shape of baby’s body. I am not sure Taro saw the similarity in her subject on the bed, and traditional Christian paintings but I am sure her trained eye saw the key message. This child and many others will lose their home, family, and possibly their own life if the war does not end.


The image of sympathy can be found in other photography before Taro. Jacob Riis photographed harsh living conditions of Italian immigrants in New York tenement blocks in the late 19th century.



Children Sleeping in Mulberry Street
By Jacob Riis, 1890, photographic print from “How the Other Half Lives”


Riis did not photograph scenes of war. But the message is the same. By showing a harsh reality, both Riis and Taro try to ask us, to change that reality. This is not limited to a photographic media but also occurs in painting.



By Edvard Munch, 1897, painting, 120 cm x 141 cm


This painting is based on an experience Munch had at a hospital in Paris where a mother is holding a dying child, infected with syphilis, in a waiting room. This painting shocked society by showing the suffering of syphilis, touching a taboo of discussing sexually transmitted disease. It is also a grotesque inversion of the classic “Madonna and child” (



By Pablo Picasso, 1937, oil on canvas, 349 cm x 776 cm


Taro is not the only person who used artistic expression to communicate the suffering of children in Spanish War.  Picasso’s famous painting “Guernica” is about the Spanish Civil War, has a woman on the left, holding her dead child, representing innocence lost and the violence of the war. This was one of the first aerial bombardments by Nazi Germany who supported the Fascist leader General Francisco Franco, indiscriminately killing civilian population.




Napalm Girl (Phan Thi Kim Phuc)
By Nick Ut AP, 1972, photographic print


Kim Phuc was nine-years-old when Nick Ut took this image of her running naked, half burned from Napalm. South Vietnamese Air Force pilot mistook her family and South Vietnamese soldiers who were fleeing from a temple as North Vietnamese forces, accidentally dropped a Napalm bomb, killing two of her cousins and two other villagers on June 8, 1972. A New York Times editor initially refused to publish this image due to the nudity, but changed their decision, and featured it on the front page the next day, later earning a Pulitzer Prize.  In 2016, a Norwegian writer shared the same image on Facebook but Facebook’s algorithm accidentally identified the image as nudity and “Facebook Community Standards” violation, removed from its webpage, and suspending the writer’s account.  Computer algorithm has advanced to identify human female naked body, but does not yet understand an image meant to gain sympathy.




Barefoot Gen (manga)
By Keiji Nakazawa, 1973-1974, comic magazine


Image making for sympathy is not limited to painting and photography but is also used in more casual media such as manga and comics. “Barefoot Gen” is a famous manga by Keiji Nakazawa. The story is loosely based on his own experience during WWII, growing up in Hiroshima, Japan. In the scene above, he drew one of his neighbors a soldier who returned with heavy injuries.  The text reads: “I lost my eyes, lost feet and forearms, alive as if worm. But my neighbor praise as if I’m a war hero.”



Dead Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi
By Nilufer Demir DHA Reuters, 2015, digital photo


The world was shocked to see the image of Syrian refugee boy who was drowned and washed up on Bodrum Beach in Turkey.  Alan Kurdi was two or three-years-old when he died. His family was trying to escape civil war in Syria, moving to be with their relatives in Canada, but their refugee sponsorship was rejected by the Canadian government, forcing his family to take a dangerous route to Turkey by small inflatable boat from Greece, resulting in his death.



Boy, Omran Daqneesh, in an Ambulance near Aleppo
By Mustafa al-Sarut, Getty Images 2016


Omran Daqneesh was pulled from the rubble in Aleppo from an airstrike by Bashar Assad, rescued and placed into an ambulance covered in dust and blood.  Mustafa al-Sarut and a few other cameramen were able to record and broadcast the rescue scene.  Omran’s parents and three siblings were also rescued, but his ten-year-old brother, Ali, was dead as a result of injury.



“It’s All About Me”
By Kaz Senju, Nov 25th 2016 at Union Square, NY, digital photo


It’s been almost 70 years since Taro photographed a refugee child in Spain. We have come far since the World War and Cold War but civil war and conflict continue around the world. And it’s not just an international conflict that requires attention, and needs us to make images for sympathy. We have our own challenge right here in USA. In the age of the selfie, images are everywhere. Social media makes us believe we are more sympathetic to social justice. Hence it is even more important for us to consider image making for sympathy today.


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