Images Americans Never Saw (and One They Did)

Yvonne Owens, PhD
6 min readOct 5, 2019


Woman grieving slain children — in Palestine

Twice I’ve posted this collection of journalistic images to my Facebook page, first in 2013 and again today in response to their belated censoring of them. Twice the corporation has covered them over, somewhat proving my point — that Americans, shielded from the evidence of the egregious violences perpetrated, aided and abetted by their government are neutered and neutralized in terms of their ability to morally respond and ethically act — to stop such abuses.

(Interestingly, the images covered over by the FB algorithm are the two that feature adult women, thus ‘protecting’ us from responding with the moral and emotional impetus to act to prevent the most statistically common abuse on the planet, this being violence against women.)

Comments posted by people shrinking from the horrors depicted accused me of posting shocking imagery out of context. But to the people in receipt of these particular images (Europeans, Al Jazeera news services, Middle Eastern and Eastern European advocacy groups and non-American-owned Facebook pages), it’s very clear where these images originate — Palestine and Israel, as labelled — the sites of the ancient struggle that the U.S.’s ‘vital interests’ are invested in exacerbating, not ameliorating. They are the results of both formal journalism and amateur, digital (cell phone) photographic documentation on the part of the victims of systematic state terrorism, genocide, ghettoizing and ‘ethnic cleansing’ activities, supported by the U.S., that goes unheralded, never reaching the taxpayers whose money underwrites a staggering roster of international crimes and human rights abuses.

Dead woman amid the rubble of her destroyed home — in Palestine
young boy mopping up the blood of his slain family members — in Palestine
Israeli soldiers arresting a seven year old child accused of disturbing the side mirror of an automobile owned by an Israeli citizen

Response to photographs of the atrocities suffered by Vietnamese civilians (added to scenes of the returned coffins of American soldiers), and the empathy and outrage that they generated, finally ended the Vietnam War. Images give audiences avenues of response. Each individual or viewing community creates their own. Is that not, in fact, ‘responsibility’? Response-ability?

My comparison to the Vietnam era and the role of the documentary photography and film that graphically recorded that war’s atrocities lies in my clear memory of a photograph of a young, naked girl running down a rural road that wound through rice paddies, her clothes having been burned away by napalm. She was desperately running toward the camera, her face a mask of terror and despair. That single, recorded truth may have contributed more to ending the Vietnam war than any other. (A lot of people have daughters.) Child running away from a napalm attack launched by Americans in Vietnam, her clothes burned off her body by the chemical. “When Nick Ut snapped a photo of Kim Phúc screaming and running naked, he helped change how the world saw the Vietnam War…That image jolted people around the world. Some say it hastened the end of the Vietnam War.” (Paula Newton and Thom Patterson, CNN, August 20, 2015)

1972 Photo by Nick Ut of Phan Thị Kim Phúc as a nine-year-old child running away from a napalm attack launched by Americans in Vietnam

“On June 8, 1972, AP Photographer Nick Ut captured what would become a Pulitzer Prize winning photo depicting children fleeing from a Napalm bombing during the Vietnam War. In the center of the frame running towards the camera was a naked 9-year-old girl, Phan Thị Kim Phúc, also known as ‘Napalm Girl.’” (AP Images website)*

My memories of Vietnam also extend to the photo-albums brought back from the fields of battle by those other victims of the war — the U.S. soldiers who fought it. I saw examples of these, kept by returned soldiers, comrades of my first husband, a Vietnam veteran. These images were vital, painful, necessary, personal proof of the hell they had experienced and been forced to force upon innocents, as well as on enemy fighters. Such documents served as evidence for why they felt the way they did — why, in great numbers, they would find ways to kill themselves within the first few years of returning to civilian life, stateside.

Like the Jewish survivors of Nazi concentration camps, who also kept such photographic records of their experience, and who wanted others to see what they had suffered (and suffered still, in their post-trauma nightmares), they needed to display what they had endured. Like the Holocaust monuments that preserve photographic records of atrocity — like the Central and South American resistors who brought photographic and filmic evidence of atrocities perpetrated by U.S. supported ‘Contras’ in their villages, cities, and farms to New York and other U.S. centres of activism against U.S. interference in Central and South America in the 80s, to show to activist and solidarity groups like ‘Artist’s Call’ and other peace groups, they sow awareness of the sufferings of some of us, key to the stirrings of empathy and vital to the cessation of tacit (by virtue of denial-based complicity) tolerance for it.

I was awakened to social conscience at the age of four or five, in England, in a cinema, by a newsreel image of a man — starved down to a skeleton and with only a loincloth to cover him — walking out of the gates at Auschwitz, having refused to be carried out on a stretcher by the American troops who had liberated him. His dignity in suffering and unimaginable victimization was unassailable and un-dimmed. Like the effort of the young, shocked and deeply traumatized boy in the photo above, attempting to clean up the blood flooding the floor of his home in the wake of the slaughter of his family, this survivor’s struggle was just beginning, and such valourous effort demands our participation, which includes simple, full, conscious awareness and emotional engagement.

Real, keen, painful, empathetic feelings are not idle, mawkish sentiments or conceits. They are real, and influence the collective consciousness at a measurable level, if the Princeton ‘Consciousness Project’ is to be credited. On a personal level, I have never forgotten that image, seen at age four or five, that awakened my sense of the essential, human justice and dignity that survives even (and perhaps especially) in atrocious circumstances, and its worthiness of my full acknowledgement and passionate, emotional engagement. Because of seeing that image, unbearable but valorous — honourable, in its human truth, I have been an activist all my life.

Posting the ‘Images Americans Do Not See’ on my FB page was merely ONE of my media portals for continuous, unshrinking acknowledgement, honouring, and inclusion of vulnerable people’s suffering at the hands of the dominant ideology and values of patristic wars, for I also teach, write, publish, perform and lecture. Facebook is a forum for me — another, recent, media-availed function of my commitment. It’s a small thing, but awareness creeps by increments and relies upon all of us doing our small part, whatever that may be. My part is to never look away and to assist victims in publicizing their plight. And they ALWAYS want their plight publicized, for that is often the ONLY means of them obtaining help. The stirring truth of the matter is that, even in the worst of circumstances, people trust others to witness their pain, and to render aid. That’s why victims of egregious abuses smuggle images out of their hellish isolation and suffering, to be displayed to the world.

How can we help if we don’t SEE, and therefore don’t KNOW? As for “recuperative communication,” like the “Truth and Reconciliation” initiatives launched by Desmond Tutu in South Africa in the wake of Apartheid, or the Truth and Reconciliation series initiated here in Canada by James Cowan in the wake of the Residential Schools atrocities against First Nations, how are these pictorial documents, here entailed, not also functions of recuperative communications?



Yvonne Owens, PhD

I'm a writer/researcher/arts educator on Vancouver Island and all round global citizen who loves humans even though we're such a phenomenal pain-in-the-ass.