A Tale of Two Images

March 24, 2010

It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us,
we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to Heaven,
we were all going direct the other way
–Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

What would you feel if I told you I was going to show you an image of a naked, crying, terrified, 9-year-old girl, who’d just had something horrible done to her?

What would you feel if I told you I was going to show you an image of a naked, healthy, 9-year-old boy, who appears to be masturbating?

The first image I can show you. It’s at Wikipedia, it won a Pulitzer Prize, it was the World Press Photo of the Year in 1972.

The second image I can’t show you. I don’t have the image, haven’t seen the image, and merely possessing or distributing such an image could land you in a Federal penitentiary for five years since it meets the Federal definition of child pornography. But there’s ample evidence that such images do exist.

The President of NCMEC (National Center for Missing & Exploited Children), Ernie Allen, says that images of child pornography are “are crime scene photos, images of the sexual abuse of a child. They are contraband, direct evidence of the sexual victimization of a child.”

I’d say the first image, Nick Ut’s famous photo showing the horrors of the Vietnam War is a crime scene photo. It’s evidence of what I would call a war crime or even a crime against humanity–the dropping of napalm on civilians.

I’d like to hear Ernie Allen’s explanation of what crime is being shown in the second image. Is the boy sexually abusing himself? Is it a crime for a nine year old boy to masturbate? I remember fondling myself at age nine and the wonderful tingling sensations it caused. Was I sexually victimizing myself? If so, I didn’t notice it then, and I don’t regret it now.

So why the great disparity in the treatment of these two images? I can think of a lot of reasons, but I don’t think the real reason has anything to do with sexual victimization, or with one or the other or image being a crime scene photo. Maybe, just maybe, the real reason is that a small minority of people actually enjoy looking at photos like the the second photo.