A portal to empathy: Photographs that change the world

Sam Nzima’s photograph of Hector Pieterson
Sam Nzima’s photograph of Hector Pieterson

First published in the Mail and Guardian .

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Stare too long at either of the three faces and a distinctly troubling sensation overwhelms you. You may look to Antoinette Sithole on the far left, and quickly turn your eyes away in a similar kind of pained disbelief. Look to the face of Mbuyisa Makhubu, 18 at the time, and you too may stifle your own raging cry of anguish. Look to Hector Pieterson in his arms, and perhaps your expression is a combination of the two others’ in the frame. Consider Sam Nzima behind the camera — which is to say consider the frame as a whole — and like me you may battle to find the words. In fact, I remember clearly that the first time I was shown this image as a young child, after a couple of seconds, I looked away. 

This iconic photograph appears in Time’s 100 Most Influential Images Of All Time as the “photo that galvanised the world against apartheid”. It and others like it — Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, Malcolm Browne’s The Burning Monk, Eddie Adams’ photo of a Saigon execution – are some of the many images over time that have had a genuine hand in turning the tide of history. Although their striking compositions may give off the impression that these were merely “right place, right time,” moments, it is no coincidence that history’s watersheds each seem to come with their own watermark. In one way or another, landmark photographs similar to Nzima’s pull at our collective heartstrings, and our personal responses to them illustrate a broader historical phenomenon. 

In her 2003 book-length essay Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag explored (among other ideas) the effectiveness of war photographs in convincing the general public of the atrocity and inhumanity of war. While much of her commentary is based on photographs taken during the First and Second World Wars, the questions she raises continue to resonate today. 

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