How Images (And Hugs) Can Change the World

12-year-old Devonte Hart, Sgt. Bret Barnum share hug at Ferguson rallyIn 1604 Christopher Marlowe wrote these lines about Helen of Troy: “was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?” The power of an image and its ability to evoke passion and emotion is ingrained in our history and social consciousness. This picture – and the story behind it – evoked so many personal feelings and emotions that I have had to sit quietly and alone for quite a while this Thanksgiving weekend determining what it was I wanted to share.

The photo above was caught by Johnny Nguyen at the start of a Ferguson rally being held in Portland, Oregon last Tuesday. Twelve-year-old Devonte Hart was holding a “Free Hugs” sign (more on that below) as he stood in front of a police barricade obviously upset.  Devonte’s mother, Jen Hart, is white, and she shared with reporters how her son has been struggling terribly to understand and reconcile his perceptions and understanding of what happened in Ferguson – and how race relations in his country will affect him as he grows into a man.

The officer pictured above, Sgt. Bret Barnum, works in the traffic division of the Portland police department and was at the site of the rally for crowd control. Standing about 10 feet from Devonte, officer Barnum noticed he was upset and called him over. They shook hands, chatted politely, Barnum expressing an interest in where Devonte went to school and what he had done this past summer. When asked why he was crying Devonte shared his concerns with the officer who empathized with those concerns. After they were done Barnum asked whether he might get one of the free hugs being offered. And thus be to infamy – maybe.

There was another time in our history when the camera captured an image that made a tremendous impact on the perception of race relations, but according to most accounts that image was not what it appeared to be. In his latest book, David & Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell relates the story behind this famous photograph of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama. The picture was taken by Bill Hudson of the Associated Press and shows 15-year-old Walter Gasden apparently being attacked by two police dogs during a May 3, 1963 protest in Birmingham.

But Walter Gasden was not a protester – he was a bystander who had been arrested by the officer in the photograph (Dick Middleton) for refusing an order to leave the street. It is believed that the police in the photograph are actually trying to hold the dogs back as Gasden strikes the dog with his left knee, causing it injury that required treatment by a veterinarian.

Diane McWhorter related this story in her book, Carry Me Home. Gladwell relied in part upon McWhoter’s account to relate how Wyatt Walker – an African American pastor and civil rights leader – had worked to confuse local authorities from being unable to distinguish protestors from bystanders in order to create chaos and a picture-perfect moment that had the purpose and effect Walker had hoped: it was printed in newspapers across the country with the understandable byline imagery of police using German Shepherds to attack a peaceful civil rights protestor.

Images can be incredibly powerful even when perception may not match reality (as in, perception is reality). A solitary image can profoundly impact a national cause just as a face can launch a thousand ships. Just as the image of a police officer accepting a free hug from a confused, scared and innocent youth can hopefully reset the dialogue we still desperately need to continue in this country on race relations, away from the hateful and destructive images of Ferguson that have perceptually hijacked that dialogue.

And what about those free hugs? The Free Hugs Campaign was started in 2004 by an Australian known under the pseudonym of Juan Mann (i.e., one man) in the Pitt Street Mall of Sydney.

imageI was first introduced to Free Hugs in 2010 when Sister Jill Bond of Catholic Health Service of Miami shared this 2006 video of the campaign shot in Hollywood, California (click on picture for link to the video). Set to the music of the late Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of Over the Rainbow, it is one of the most captivating, inspiring and thought-provoking videos I have ever seen, and I have used it multiple times since in client workshops.

That it serves as an underpinning of the story behind the image of Devonte and Officer Barnum is emotionally compelling to me on multiple levels. In a time when technology has done so much to keep us connected it truly amazes – and depresses – me to realize just how disconnected we have become. And how way too often it seems our preference is to remain that way unless someone – like an innocent 12-year-old boy whose heart is full of love and wonder – has the courage to help us understand how simply powerful one hug can be – especially when it’s captured as an image that can be shared with others.


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