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Newtown Massacre and the Power of Images: Macabre Echo of “Snap the Whip”

Am I alone in having Winslow Homer‘s iconic image of innocent, idyllic childhood come to mind, wrenchingly, when I encountered (on the front page of all three newspapers that I receive) the sickening Newtown Bee photo of children being evacuated from Sandy Hook Elementary School, after the horrific massacre that occurred there on Friday?


Winslow Homer, “Snap the Whip,” 1872, Metropolitan Museum

This painting, a framed reproduction of which I passed in the hall every day during my own innocent elementary school years in the Bronx, shows “exuberant boys” forming a chain after being “released from the confines of a one-room schoolhouse,” in the words of the Metropolitan Museum’s description of its signature American masterwork.

The Connecticut newspaper’s now iconic image also shows schoolchildren forming a chain after being released from their school, but the looks on their faces—one distraught, most looking scared or bewildered—signify an end of innocence, not just for them but for students and teachers throughout the nation. America’s elementary school teachers, including three of my own relatives, will have to grapple this week with their students’ fears and questions as they try to understand what this news, from which it’s been impossible to shield them, could mean for them and their safety.

More urgently, the children who directly lived through this horror should be shielded from the media intrusion exemplified by that invasive photograph that went around the world. The editors of an ABC news video seemed to sense the need to protect the children’s privacy by blotting out their faces from the Newtown Bee image that appeared in newspapers, unedited.

If there were ever a time to respect a suffering community’s need for peace and healing, it’s this one. When young, traumatized children are involved, the delicacy of such a situation is all the greater.

James Poniewozik of Time magazine got it right when he wrote:

There is no good journalistic reason to put a child at a mass-murder scene on live TV, permission of the parents or not.

I think there is also “no good reason” to parade distraught and confused children on Page One, even if it’s the “money shot” that will rivet readers. My first thought when I saw that every newspaper featured this photo was that it was going to win the Pulitzer Prize.

My second thought was, “It had better not.”

Having suffered through an unimaginable school invasion, this once peaceful town is now enduring a media invasion. Let Newtown be…especially its young.

an ArtsJournal blog