Yarmouk and a contagion of doubt

U.N. Denies That Syria Image Was Faked” and “U.N. Denies Altering Image of Palestinian Refugees in Damascus” — both headlines appeared in the New York Times on Tuesday and referred to doubts that have been expressed about the authenticity of what has become an iconic representation of suffering in Syria.


As the following screenshot taken from a video that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) posted on YouTube and filmed at the same time as the photo above makes clear, the photograph’s authenticity is beyond doubt.


Paradoxically, the fact that UN officials were put in a position where they needed to refute accusations that the photograph had been faked, and the New York Times’ own headlines, will quite likely have had the opposite of the intended effect. Where doubts may have previously been few, they are now just as likely to continue growing.

We live in an age of doubt and the internet is its engine — the very notion that something can be “beyond doubt” has itself become an object of doubt.

As someone who from a very early age was taught to question — I was lucky enough to have parents and teachers who recognized that questioning is a vital instrument of intelligence — the proliferation of doubt might to my eye look like a positive development. It might seem like a sign that people are less susceptible to manipulation by the political and corporate forces which shape popular thought. But I see little evidence that this is indeed the case.

On the contrary, the doubt that spreads so easily has less to do with critical intelligence and much more to do with suspicion and fear. The “fake” meme is much more contagious than any sober analysis.

Doubt and cynicism are held onto because they offer psychic armor for shielding ourselves from the dark forces controlling the world. The price, however, for those who employ this form of protection, is that it tends to render them immobile.

Yet clearly, the image of Yarmouk’s starving residents that got retweeted more than eight million times was not being passed around primarily by those who had doubts about what the photograph depicted.

As Chris Gunness, the spokesman for UNRWA said: “I saw that image and said, ‘This has the wow factor.’”

It is an image that resonates and does so for multiple reasons. Strange as it may sound, this is not only a news image but also a work of art.

In accordance with the principle of the “golden ratio” (or divine proportion), it is a perfectly balanced composition. It is a photograph that could just as easily be a painting.

More than simply capturing a moment of one day for one particular group of people, it seems to represent something timeless about the vulnerability of all people throughout history in times of war.

Within the skeletal remains of a city shattered by human brutality, we see that reinforced concrete is easier to destroy than the will to live.

Hope and desperation come together.

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