The Power of an Image

The unstable political situation in Iran since the presidential election grows worse by the day, as the government has brutalized and arrested thousands of protestors. Could we be witnessing “a new birth of freedom” in Iran—or will the government crackdown ultimately drive the dissenters under cover, as the Chinese government did with the Tiananmen Square protestors?

I pray it signals change, but it’s really too early to tell.

I can tell you one thing, however, that makes me think that the turmoil of these last weeks will have a lasting impact on Iran. The whole world now knows the name of one young woman who has become a martyr for the cause of freedom in Iran. Thanks to news photographers and to videos posted on YouTube, millions of people watched in horror as Neda Agha-Soltan took a sniper’s bullet to the chest, and slumped to the ground.

The name Neda, by the way, means “voice” in Farsi.

As the Times Online put it, Neda “has become a global symbol of innocence destroyed by evil.” Although it isn’t clear why Neda was at the protest rally—whether to merely observe the event or to join it—her death has put a human face on the Iranian struggle for human rights and a fair election.

We have seen these kinds of symbols before, and there is no denying their power. One of them was from that same Tiananmen Square massacre: the unforgettable photo of a young man bravely facing down a government tank.

Other photos have moved entire nations. As I wrote in my book How Now Shall We Live?, I’ll never forget the first time I saw the famous 1972 photo of a little Vietnamese girl, Kim Phuc, running away after a bombing, her skin burned by napalm. That photo broke my heart and the hearts of countless others, and as I would later write, it “became an emblem for an entire nation questioning its reason for being in Vietnam.”

Another photograph from Vietnam had a similar effect: the photo of South Vietnamese General Nguyen executing a Viet Cong prisoner in February 1968. The picture has often been cited as the image that “as much as any, turned public opinion against the war”—even though the photographer, Eddie Adams, who saw both sides of the story, had not intended it that way.

Adams later wrote, “The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world.”

Adams was right. For better or for worse, images shape our thinking, our emotions, and our responses to the world around us. Context is always important, for sometimes images can mislead, as Eddie Adams discovered. But sometimes images can show us the truth about ordinary people, people just like us, fighting for the same rights that we so often take for granted.

Could the video of Neda’s lifeblood pouring out on the streets of Tehran be the image that changes everything for her country?

That I don’t know. But I do know this. No matter how hard the Iranian government tries to silence the calls for freedom, Neda has given her fellow Iranians a voice that the world can’t help but hear.

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