A single photograph taken during an incident can come to define the incident. The picture of Aylan Kurdi lying dead in the surf in Turkey, may come to define the refugee crisis taking place in Europe at present. Listening to some commentary on Radio 4 yesterday, they tried to explain why the picture was so powerful. The little boy was dressed in trainers and the type of clothes that our own children would wear at that age – he was found on a beach, with many of us having recently come back from our beach holidays. Many of us have recently taken our children back to school after the summer holidays so this is an emotional time, and Aylan died alone. All these factors come together to add to the poignancy of the image. Finding out more about Aylan, we hear how his father tried to save his family when their boat capsized, and had to watch watch as one by one his wife and two sons drowned. It is not surprising that Nicola Sturgeon and I admit myself, have been reduced to tears.
Many incidents that have pictures which define the incident are instantly recognisable and perhaps say more about the incident than thousands of words can. In the Vietnam War the two classic pictures which defined the conflict, are the picture of Saigon Police Chief and General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, shooting a Vietcong suspect in the head, and the other picture is of nine year old Phan Thị Kim Phúc, running naked down a road after having been burned in a Napalm attack. Both pictures galvanized antiwar supporters and are still used in books talking about the war today. Pictures of the fireball after a plane had flown into one of the twin towers on 9/11 is instantly recognised the world over. The picture of the U.S. Marines raising their flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima is used to define the heroism of US troops in WW2. In contrast, the picture of a US army female dragging a naked inmate by a chain round his neck at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, defines the opposite to the flag raising and has galvanized many Muslims to join Al-Qaeda or IS.
With the explosion of smartphone use we know that most people have a camera in their pocket and if there is an incident people will try and take pictures or video it. People actually have to be stopped, often running towards an incident to get a picture, at the risk to their own lives. Social media can lead to a photo from an incident going viral almost instantly worldwide.
If we recognise the power and impact an image can have, we should think about building this into our business continuity plans.
Some thoughts on what you can do to prepare your organisation:
- Have a stock of high quality photos of your organisations’ operations, buildings and personnel, ready prior to an incident so that they can be used on social media and press releases.
- Acknowledge that there will be pictures of your incident, so do not try and cover up an event. If you say the event is very minor and pictures emerge which contradict this, you will be seen as lying or trying to cover up the incident. As we know, often it is the cover up, or the perception of a cover up, which can be worse than the actual incident.
- Monitor the media and social media for photographs of your incident. Cleverly taken angles or views of the incident can make the incident look a lot worse than it actually is. Be prepared to take and put out your own picture, which tells your story and may contradict their photo and story
- Explain the context of your photos and explain why you have put out a particular photo and make your photos freely available to the media.
- Never manipulate or Photoshop a photo it is considered the same as lying. BP posted some official photographs of the famous oil platform disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. They tried to show how the company was responding to the oil crisis, but were caught out when people found out the picture had been Photo shopped. The photo taken inside a company helicopter appeared to show it flying off the coast near the damaged Deepwater Horizon rig. It was later shown to be fake after bloggers identified several problems with the poorly produced image that contradicted the appearance that it was flying. This added to their image of being inept and untrustworthy.
- Lastly, pictures and videos can capture incidents which may normally go unreported or those reporting them would not be believed or listened to. There have been a number of videos out of the USA showing, what many would say, was excessive force against mainly black people which has lead to protests on the streets. In South Africa, there were pictures of a suspect being dragged behind a police car who later died of his injuries. Misbehaviour is now likely to be captured by photo or video, and it is near impossible to deny that the incident took place. The organisation then has to deal with the reputation damage and try to explain why those under its control carried out the act.
Could I say thanks to Jools May, Mairead Grimley and Asma Hussain who answered my call on social media and sent me ideas for iconic photos.