When the roles are reversed

Any photo of any child makes us think of our own, or the child we once were. When the photos show children suffering or lost, we quiver with a grief that feels personal.” – Susan Ager

Tragedy- on first glance that is all we see. A young boy, stripped of his clothing, wading through water, pushing a rickety pram. The denotations of this image are rooted in the emotion it portrays, and at this point context is not important. Instinct kicks in and the fact that we see a child, innocent and vulnerable, is enough for our morality to drive us to delve deeper.

But too often the humming of our phones shatters our moment of compassion and we are swept back into our own lives, the image lost in the tides of memory. This photograph can represent a plethora of ideas, but the black and white tone and the nakedness of the boy blindingly depicts the tragedy of the human condition and the immense disparity between developed and developing countries. Yes, we are concerned, but after viewing this image how many of us spare our change for the cause? And how many simply continued to go about our days?

It is not only the connotations of the image, but the connotations of our response to it which much be considered, giving us further insight into the ‘not in my backyard’ attitude which is evident in today’s society. If we are not directly at risk or affected by something, do we have the moral obligation to do something about it? A stance taken too often by society paints this picture as the cry from help from the vulnerable.

This vulnerability is connoted in a representation of the contrast in the roles of children. The pram is symbolic of innocence and protection yet the difference lies in the fact that the little boy is pushing it. This challenges the typical representation of the parent, or protector. Rather than being protected himself he now adopts the role of the provider, thus highlighting the innate loss of innocence that such tragedy can bring.

The vast contrast in societies and popular attitude or belief is also represented in this image. The landscape around the boy is completely ravaged, he himself is covered in mud and the sense of hopelessness seems so overbearing that when put in such a situation many people would simply admit defeat. Yet the fact that this young boy is retrieving the pram, which within many societies would appear unsalvageable, reflects the perseverance and resourcefulness of devastated communities. This, contrasted with developed countries and our disposable society, creates an interesting point of difference where we are forced to question our own resourcefulness and greed.

The context in which this image is seen has an enormous effect on it’s interpretation. From the comfort of our own home it is simply a human tragedy, yet from a third world country this image may be a symbol of hope and perseverance; of past troubles and triumphs. For a parent it may appear as an awful reminder of the vulnerability of a child, but for a child it may convey fear that maybe one day they too will fall victim to natural disaster.

The name of this boy is unknown, as is his age and ultimately his fate. Yet the simple action of a single child in a very complex environment carries a meaning far more significant than its means.


Photo credit: Patrick Farrell,  ‘A young boy in Gonaives pushes a stroller from the wreckage of his family’s home in the wake of Tropical Storm Hanna.’ , 2008 


2 thoughts on “When the roles are reversed

  1. Hey Laura,
    Beautifully written article and very interesting topic. You have explored your complex image in a clear, yet in-depth manner that highlights all the possible connotations of such an image. I love how you express the effect of our own context and environment on the connotations of an image like the differing perception of an individual in a developing country. Despite the rather moving nature of the image I’d agree that society these days has adopted a ‘not in my backyard attitude’; quite a sad reality when there are people clearly much more vulnerable and disadvantaged than ourselves. Your perception of the image is very thought provoking yet concise and I envy your writing fluidity. Thanks for the great read. It is by far the best blog I’ve read so far 🙂


  2. First, Laura, I’d just like to say that I completely and absolutely love your blog! Your posts are so beautifully eloquent that I’m turning a little green with envy. Maybe a lot. I love that you’re not only concerned with the analysis of this image but the actual physical manifestation of our response and the impact that has on the meaning of such a raw representation of the human condition. I completely agree that context impacts so obviously on our readings of any text, and having a direct link to the context of your own audience reinforces your point perfectly. It’s ridiculous how much I’m looking forward to your next post!


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