Ekphrasis and the collapse of compassion

If I look at the mass, I will never act. – Mother Teresa

Another moving photo of immigrants’ plights, that of the bodies of Salvadoran migrant Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his twenty-three-month-old daughter, Valeria, has gone viral. They drowned while Ramírez attempted to swim with Valeria strapped to him across the Rio Grande near Brownsville, TX.

The photo recalls that of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian refugee found faced down in 2015 in Turkey’s coastal waters and that of Kim Phuc Phan Thi, the “Napalm Girl” in the Vietnam War. Such photos sear into consciousness.

Those of the Syrian toddler and the Salvadoran family, however, strike a discordant note. They trigger cognitive dissonance as they convey an image of serenity in the face of tragedy.

Writing about their power to evoke reaction, the Washington Post’s art critic Phillip Kennicott talks about ekphrasis, which Merriam-Webster defines as “a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art.”

“The photograph as an exercise of conscience,” he writes, “requires time, effort and openness, similar but more profound than what we do when we go to the theater or look at a painting.”

Ekphrasis deals with the human inclination to fill in a work’s details. Each person’s is based on prior experiences, beliefs, and biases. Kennicott suggests reactions might range from empathy and heartbreak to dismissal.

“That double message — the innocent first take followed by the bitter second one — is a basic emotional mechanism of this genera of tragedy images. It also helps us think about how the image functions in the larger world, its power to elicit social sympathy or political change.

“Because these images have already broken through our own resistance to seeing pain and tragedy in the world, we imagine that they must break through the collective conscience as powerful political icons. They enter our consciousness almost by stealth and then explode, and that is how we assume they’ll work in the public square, too.”

I’m curious about what might have raced through Ramírez’s mind in his last moments. Terror, certainly, but also failure? His job, like any father’s, was to protect and provide for Valeria. In the end, he could not.

To provide for and protect. Given it’s a father’s most sacred responsibility, failing to do so must be every good father’s worst nightmare. Thus, when the photo is viewed from that perspective, Ramírez’s plight can no longer be easily categorized, pigeonholed, or framed within the larger political issue. Rather, it becomes universalized, humanized, and, for fathers, personalized.

It’s unlikely anyone reading this knew Ramírez, but everyone, especially fathers, should connect with the deeper meaning of his desperate act. What were the reasons he trekked with her from El Salvador to the U.S border? Did he carry her the entire length of Mexico? What made him so desperate that, when so close, he took such an extreme risk?

How many fathers would take such extreme steps if not warranted? All good ones, and those not willing, I suggest he donate to Goodwill his t-shirt emblazoned with “World’s Greatest Dad.”

The brutal Soviet dictator Josef Stalin stated, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” It seems he and Mother Teresa agreed.

In Psychology Today, Dr. Keith Payne points to studies that demonstrate a correlation between what he calls “collapse of compassion,” when one is confronted with numerous tragic images and stories, with those who control their emotions. Intriguing, but the studies gave evidence to another more-telling outcome: Those that kept their emotions under control while reading about victims, later rated themselves as less moral people. 

Señor Ramírez and Valeria, RIP.  

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