Bosnia: When the pictures of war light a bonfire of emotions

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The Independent Online
1939. When Julien Bryan photographed a peasant girl kneeling helplessly beside

her sister, killed in a German air attack on Polish refugees outside Warsaw,

the effect on the British and American publics was almost like a call to arms

1969. Don McCullin's photograph of an albino boy suffering from malnutrition brought home the devastation of the Biafran war

1972. The Vietnam war's most famous single image is Huynh Cong Ut's Pulitzer

prize-winning picture for AP of a naked girl, screaming in pain from napalm

burns, in a group of terrified children fleeing after an American attack

1992. Painful and bitter memories of Nazi atrocities were revived last August when an ITN camera crew filmed these shocking pictures of emaciated Bosnian

men held prisoner behind the barbed wire of Omarska concentration camp

SOME PICTURES get through. Out of the thousands shot every day by photographers or film crews in all the trouble-spots of the world, a very few - perhaps once or twice in a year - achieve this feat called 'touching the public conscience'.

Many wounded children in Sarajevo, perhaps hundreds, have appeared on newspaper pages and television screens in the last year.

But when it came to Irma Hadzimuratovic, suddenly and mysteriously the locks of compassion fell open. Downing Street was swamped with telephone calls; a Prime Minister and a Foreign Secretary decided to act; insoluble obstacles melted, and Irma arrived at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in London.

Irma, as an image, has changed the quality of concern over Bosnia. This does not mean that Britain will now go to war to stop the shells which hit children in the city of Sarajevo. But it means that, from now on, the public declare the Bosnian conflict intolerable and insist that 'something should be done'.

The rescue of Irma was tokenism, and Maggie O'Kane, in the Guardian, was right to say so. But the impact of Irma's picture is permanent.

There have been other pictures which got through. ITN's film of Bosnian prisoners at Omarska did so. The terrible Associated Press picture of the naked Vietnamese girl skinned by American napalm did so, and is now the most famous single image of that war.

Don McCullin's 1969 photograph of the starving albino boy in the Biafran war did so, in an already remote period when famine pictures from Africa were startling.

And it was television film of the 1984 Ethiopian famine by Michael Buerk and Mohammed Amin that touched off the whole avalanche of sympathy which led to Bob Geldof and Band Aid.

But why did those particular images do it? They were not always the first, not always even the best. The pictures of Irma are one example; Buerk and Amin's film is another. Journalists had already written horrifying accounts of what was happening, with photographs.

Context is one explanation. Irma appeared in the week that Sarajevo seemed about to fall, when the West felt shamed and tormented by its own inaction. There comes a moment when emotions have piled up their bonfire and are ready for the match. Pictures from a crisis which nobody knows about never get through. And most of the pictures which do get through are of children.

What that tells is how far attitudes to war, especially, have changed in the last 20 or 30 years. In the old days, the war pictures which touched hearts usually showed adults: Capa's falling soldier in Spain, or a Cockney woman smiling as she picked her way through blitz rubble. This was because, in a sense, people still believed in war. A war had baddies and goodies, to be cursed or cheered on; and adults, in or out of uniform, were its cast.

Now new generations hold cameras and look at pictures. For them, war is almost entirely a human disaster brought about by governments. They are far less concerned with the rights and wrongs of one side or the other.

In this view - the outsider's view - the principal actors are not soldiers; they are the innocent human beings who have no part in war but are destroyed by it. Even adult civilians have only a qualified innocence here, for they may be thought to be committed to 'official' views of what the conflict is about. Children are not. Pictures of wounded children express this view of 'war as meaningless crime' in its purest form.

Among the photographs on this page is a much older one. It was taken by the American photographer Julien Bryan in September 1939, and it shows two sisters after a German air attack on refugees outside Warsaw. This picture also got through. For the American and British public, it suddenly personalised what Nazi aggression meant, in a way no conventional war photographs could achieve.

As an image, it is a bridge between epochs. When we look at it now, we see Irma's sisters, children smashed by the pointless savagery of war. But in 1939, the picture was read differently. It said: 'This is a war we have to join, because this is an enemy we have to destroy before he destroys the human race.'

Both readings are 'true'. Which one we choose depends on the mood of our times, and on the openness of our hearts.

(Photographs omitted)