Portraits of conflict: Can an image stop the bloodshed?

Story highlights

Photojournalist Robert King risks his life to document the human toll in Syria's conflict

Unlike other conflicts, where images have provoked action, King says the world has done nothing

King says in his 20-year career he has never photographed so many wounded children

Veteran photojournalist Horst Fass remembers the impact of images on the Vietnam War

Editor’s Note: A self-described media junkie, China nerd and geek mom – Kristie Lu Stout is also an anchor/correspondent for CNN International. Join her on News Stream, each weekday at 8pm Hong Kong time, 1pm London, 8am New York.

Hong Kong CNN  — 

For weeks now, I’ve been warning viewers about the video I’m about to show them.

They are horrific images from the conflict in Syria – images of blood-stained walls, butchered children and dead babies.

On air, I preface the footage with an emphatic warning: “They are disturbing and not appropriate for all viewers. But given the nature of the attack and the number of dead, we believe showing them is necessary to convey the extent of this atrocity.”

Opposition groups say almost 13,000 people have died since the uprising began more than a year ago, with countless more wounded.

Photojournalist Robert King risked his life to document the human toll in the besieged Syrian city of Al Qusayr. His footage takes you inside the makeshift hospitals where doctors and medics work under appalling conditions. You see the blood-soaked mattresses. You see the bloodied children. You hear their wailing mothers.

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King tells me in the 20 years he’s been covering conflict, he has never photographed so many wounded children. He wants his footage to tell the story of the Syrian people to the wider public. “I also hope these images can be a historical reference to prosecute Assad for war crimes against humanity,” he said.

The unaltered image is the ultimate portrayal of reality. It depicts the terror on the ground and the urgent need for help. But can it stop the bloodshed?

U.N. monitors find Syrian ghost town

This month is the 40th anniversary of one of the most unforgettable images of modern conflict. It’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of nine-year-old Kim Phuc taken during the Vietnam War on June 8, 1972. She is naked and running, her clothes and layers of skin melted away by napalm.

Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut took the photograph. He also helped the young girl get treatment for her injuries. She survived and later founded the Kim Phuc Foundation, providing medical and psychological help to child victims of war.

The haunting image of the aftermath of a napalm attack captured the horror of this bloody conflict. It also, some believe, helped to end the war.

Veteran photo editor Horst Faas, who died in May this year, once said: “It changed the war. I met so many American soldiers who said ‘Nicky because of your picture I’ll get to go home early.’”

A single snapshot can depict the truth of conflict and drive commitment to end the violence.

But that’s not the case for Syria.

Thanks to video clips uploaded by opposition activists to YouTube and the work of journalists like King, we have – for months – witnessed the constant death, pain and suffering inside Syria.

And yet, there is diplomatic deadlock at the United Nations. A massacre is followed by reports of another mass killing. The conflict drags on and on and on.

King has given Syria’s victims a human face with his footage. But he’s more horrified by the public apathy than the atrocities he’s captured on video.

“I’ve never experienced such an indifference with the public,” he told me with an exasperated sigh. “I was amazed. I’ve photographed children wounded in Sarajevo and moved nations into action. But here in Syria, you have wounded children everyday and nobody seems to care. It’s horrifying.”

The shots from Syria taken by him and others have been seen around the world. But these stirring images have failed to stir any meaningful action.