All Eyes On Rafah

A few weeks back, this image was all over my Instagram feed, I think I’ve seen it at least ten times in stories. And I’m not the only one, it has been shared by 46 million people already (source). I immediately felt a connection to other images that became the face of historic tragedies, such as the world-famous photo of Thich Quang Duc, the Buddist monk that set himself on fire in 1968’s Vietnam.

Buddhist monk Thích Quang Duc burned himself to death in Saigon, 1968

Buddhist monk Thích Quang Duc burned himself to death in Saigon, 1968. Photo by Malcolm Browne.

But something stings me about the ‘All eyes on Rafah’ image, which is, to my trained eyes, obviously AI generated. I follow almost exclusively other creative people on Instagram, as I only have an account for my illustration work. Almost everyone I follow has been very outspoken against AI the past weeks, especially in the light of Meta’s new policy of using users’ data to train its AI model (source).

I do not wat to accuse anyone of hypocrisy. I’m just wondering, what does it say about our society that an AI image becomes the icon of this humanitarian disaster, when we live in a time that there never has been more photographic content of war than ever before? If you have a chance to share a tragedy where the world should take action, why not pick a photo made by someone who was there, at that moment, probably at risk for his or her own life?

Some writers have been suggesting the succes of this AI image comes because from the fact it is not as violent as the videos of the bombing and resulting fire (source). Graphic content is prohibited on social media, so I understand the need for imagery that is friendly on the eyes. Nevertheless, an image does not have to be graphic to be powerful. Most iconic historical photos that have shaped the public opinion of conflicts are not graphic at all. They suggest much more than that they show.

Fairly simple pictures with strong impact. Left: A tortured detainee at Abu Ghraib prison, Iraq, 2003. Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Ivan Frederick. Upper Right: A starving child and a vulture during the famine of 1993 in Ayod, Sudan. Photo by Kevin Carter. Lower Right: Drowned 3-year-old Alan Kurdi washed ashore in Bodrum, Turkey, 2015. Photo by Nilufer Demir.

In the case of the photo by Kevin Carter, the boy was on his way to an United Nations feeding center togehter with his aunt, only a few steps away (source). Vultures were common in the region even before the famine (source). It is the framing that suggests the vulture is waiting for the child which strengthens the impact of the image. (1)

After all, the World Press Photo of last year was a picture made in Gaza (source). There are plenty of powerful, SFW photos that could make the world turn its attention to this humanic disaster.

But is it a photo?

But maybe I shouldn’t compare the All Eyes on Rafah image to press photography? Even though the image is made by a photographer, I assume it is made far from the actual event, probably from the comfort of a desk. It is made by coming up with an idea beforehand and then executing it, so I should compare it to political illustration instead.

“Good news: we formally recognize Palestinian statehood!” “Well, I don’t recognize it anymore!”; Political cartoon by Michel Kichka (source).

Though, if I classify the image an illustration rather than a photograph, I should critique the idea behind it, as the visual is now completely independent of any real events. And then the ‘All Eyes On Rafah’ image falls short still: there are much cleverer illustrations made about the situation in Gaza than a bird’s eye view of endless tents. Humans are still endlessy better at creating thought-provoking images than computers, and with the current state of generative AI, the human still needs to provide the genius idea. Of course, most of the 43 million people that shared the image don’t know or care about generative AI or clever visual commentary, but most of those 43 million I follow do.

‘The First Intifada’, political cartoon by Mohammad Sabaaneh, inspired by Picasso’s Guernica (source).

Nevertheless, the ambiguity of the message behind the ‘Alle eyes on Rafah’ image might be partial to its success. Asking for the world to look at the situation, how can you be against that? It doesn’t specify what action the world should take, which is a much harder question to answer. A lot of political cartoons take a lot more opiniated stance in this conflict, and those opinions are much less supported as a whole.

About a week after I saw the Rafah image take over my feed I came across the story on the right, though far less shared I assume – it popped up only once. Is this a better image? It is at least more impactful if you ask me.

I hope I could at least introduce you to a couple of cartoonists that create thoughtful work about this conflict. I would be happy if I could perhaps stir your thoughts about what makes an image powerful.

If I learned anything from writing this, it is that visual journalism, to give the creation of images for press purposes a name, still relies on framing the situation. To make a powerful statement about actual events, you need an image that is designed, whenever on purpose or by chance. A truly objective image does not exist.

(1) Carter received a lot of criticism at the time of publication for not helping the child. The general public did not know that he and his collegue were led around by rebel soldiers and told not to interfere with the situation. Photographers were also told not to touch anyone in fear of spreading diseases. Carter took his own life four months after he received the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography for this picture, unable to live with “the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain”.