What photos tell us: Stalin knows

we were all once refugees

Do you think Joseph Stalin –indeed the Russian communistic leader- could teach you anything about photography? I’m sure you’re thinking at this moment that there’s no link between Stalin and photography. Although Stalin had a significant impact on world history, as far as the history books go, he had no significant impact on photography.


Still, there’s something.


Once upon a time, Stalin said these words:


‘The death of one man is a tragedy

The death of millions is a statistic’



Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and Aylan


This week the drowned bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 2 years old daughter became world news. On their way from El Salvador to the United States, they both drowned while crossing the Rio Grande. Their dead bodies were photographed by Julia LeDuc. The photo showd the father still holding his daughter close to him. The photo became the ‘face’ of the migration crisis Latin America is witnessing these days.


Only three years earlier another photo reached the headlines. The photo showed the drowned body of the three years old Aylan Kurdi’s on the beach of Bodrum. The photo made by Nilüfer Demir shocked the word.



Only a short glimpse is enough to never forget these images.



Both photos had in a huge impact in common. While Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírezare, his daughter and Aylan were not the only ones dying during the dangerous search for safety, the photos became the ‘faces’ of the tragedy of migration.



Statistic becomes tragedy


While immigration is a hot topic worldwide these days, the number of people dying in search of safety and freedom remains a statistic: an abstract number.


For those who read or hear about the amount of people dying in the Mediterranean Sea or on the American continent, the number is still news with little impact. The statistic presents facts without any or no emotion at all and that’s where the number stays abstract.


Actually, people get used to the numbers, they become part of the daily life. People are not touched by it and they will not notice them anymore over time.


Facts don’t move people, but emotions do.



Heart breaking as the photos of LeDuc and Demir are, these photos are able to show what numbers can’t. While statistics can put the numbers into frames, the photography of one single tragedy can touch and move people. In fact the statistics come to life: abstracts become emotions.


While we all know that people make the decision to leave their countries, to make a dangerous journey toward an insecure but hopefully safer life, it is the confrontation of literally seeing the tragedy that provokes an emotion.


Photos show what statistics can’t: the emotional tragedy



A single number has no face, that’s where photography makes a difference. In the statistics of all the refugees, the photos of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez with his daughter and Aylan made the statistic a tragedy. They showed the tragedy behind the abstract statistics of the many deaths.



Reality check


Back to the beginning: of course Stalin can’t tell you anything about photography. But up to this date, his quote describes exactly the importance of photography in this area: the death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic.


And so it shows in today’s worldwide migration crisis. The photos of LeDuc and Demir tell you what statistics can’t: the tragedy of the pain, loneliness and suffering of people in search of safety and freedom.


Photography is able to show the emotional impact of this tragedy. While facts will be written and heard, emotions can move people.

Read more about this here: The one thing that drives every one of us wild

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