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September 9, 2015
by Autumn Robinson, MA, PhD Candidate

Desensitization or Inspiration - What is the Effect of Viewing Graphic Photos?

September 9, 2015 09:35 by Autumn Robinson, MA, PhD Candidate  [About the Author]

The images are searing and undeniably heart wrenching - three year old boy’s body washed up on a pristine beach. The boy could be sleeping, in that curled up limp way that toddlers are known to sleep wherever they find themselves exhausted. He doesn’t look to be gone, as if he might just wake up and rub his eyes at any moment, then scamper away to play. A police officer approaches, then scoops him up in the following image.

His name was Aylan, and he was a refugee from the conflict in Syria who, along with his parents and five year old brother, were seeking refuge when their boat sank off the coast of Turkey. Only his father survived when their boat sank.

The image ran through the media like a firestorm. In the world of social media, it flew through newsfeeds quickly, with little warning for those who might turn away. This story marked the first time that the image of a dead child gained this level of exposure, and the line between voyeurism and news became blurred nearly beyond recognition. Perhaps most shocking is that, unlike the violent video of reporter Alison Parker and her cameraman Adam Ward being murdered prompted a call for the media to refrain from the use of violent images only one week earlier, the images of Aylan circulated with little question of appropriateness.

The Effect of Media Violence

Seeing violence in the media has been shown to create physiological changes in the body. Simply observing it can cause some of the same symptoms that are associated with PTSD (Mrug, Madan, Cook, & Wright, 2015). Disturbing images aren't anything new, and are as old as the printed picture itself. However there is that line between voyeurism and real emotional connection. Voyeurism leads to changes in the brain that are more centered on pleasure and control, where emotionally disturbing pictures create the previously mentioned PTSD reactions. Another problematic piece of the puzzle is the line between real and imagined violence - how can one tell the difference between Hollywood and reality? Our brains don't really know the difference and in fact our attachments to fictional characters can lead to a higher stress response when faced with violence against them than it does with violence against unknown strangers, even if they're real (Mrug et al., 2015). 

In any case, repeated exposure to violent acts does create a desensitization response, with diminished empathy and emotional reactivity in individuals after repeated exposure to violent images (Mrug et al., 2015). 

Vehicle for Change

The major difference in the images of reporter Alison Parker and Adam Ward and those of little Aylan is that there is a crisis involving tens of thousands that need help which can be affected by the latter. While the Virginia shooting is certainly newsworthy, it doesn’t offer consumers of that news the opportunity to take action for social change. In the days since pictures circulated of the Aylan, there has been a global movement to change the way that the refugee crisis is being addressed by both European countries and in fact the world at large. His picture has marked a watershed moment in just under a week that has seen Germany, Austria and France open their borders to refugees in crisis.

Another serious marker of the differences in the images from Virginia and those from Turkey is perspective. The perspective from the images of the Virginia shooting is one of the shooter (from the perspective of the video that the killer posted himself) or of passive watchers (Rosenberg, 2015). The images from Turkey place the observer as empathetic with with the policeman and other first responders, sharing in the sorrow at the loss of this young life. There is no fear or emotional turmoil from the victim as in the images from Virginia, only the reality of the loss of a child.

Images that are violent and shocking do have the power to create changes in the implicit identity among viewers (Zlatevska & Spence, 2012) and thereby have the potential to affect real world change, despite desensitization and increased media violence. Thus far, the story of Aylan has been one in which powerful social change has come about. Though his life could not be saved, it seems as though a great deal of others will be. 


Corrigall-Brown, C. (2012). The power of pictures: Images of politics and protest introduction. AMERICAN BEHAVIORAL SCIENTIST, 56(2), 131-134

Mrug, S., Madan, A., Cook III, E. W., & Wright, R. A. (2015). Emotional and physiological desensitization to real-life and movie violence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 44(5), 1092-1108.

Rosenberg, A. (2015). The inevitable livestreamed massacre. The Oakland Press. Retrieved on September 4, 2015 from

Withnall, A. (2015). If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will? The Independent. Retrieved on September 4, 2015 from

Zlatevska, N., & Spence, M. T. (2012). Do violent social cause advertisements promote social change? an examination of implicit associations. Psychology and Marketing, 29(5), 322-333.

About the Author

Autumn Robinson, MA, PhD Candidate Autumn Robinson, MA, PhD Candidate

Autumn Robinson is a writer and PhD candidate who lives in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina with her husband, three young boys and daughter with special needs. She is a former special education teacher who believes that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Autumn is the Digital Manager for Vestidd, an innovative cloud based program that helps families with special needs to organize and manage their often complex responsibilities.

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