Power of Storytelling | When is the risk of controversy worth it? Hint: think of the “e-word.”

December 18, 2017

The Bhopal disaster, also known as The Bhopal gas leak, is considered the world’s worst industrial disaster of all time. On December 2nd, 1984, 27 tons of a deadly gas leaked from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. A crippling devastation still haunts the city today. Not only did 25,000 people lose their lives due to exposure, but 150,000 currently suffer from chronic ailments ranging from blindness, to difficulty breathing, to gynecological disorders. And Bhopal was never properly cleaned, so the idea of recovery, even over the long-term, can feel far away.

The tragedy of Bhopal — the horrifying narrative behind it — is inherently heartbreaking and inspires a range of emotions. In this case, related imagery can possess an overwhelming amount of power. Photos latch onto the emotion and expand upon it. They cast Bhopal not just as a tragedy that happened, but as people who’ve experienced ongoing suffering.

Which brings me to a recent conversation I witnessed, where a fundraiser was discussing the use of a photo of a father holding his dead infant after birth. She recognized the impact of the imagery and wanted to use it in fundraising appeals. Unfortunately, she was receiving push back not only from her boss, but from board members.

I was instantly reminded of an image captured by photojournalist Raghu Rai during the Bhopal disaster, known as “Burial of an unknown child.” The picture’s resonance is endless. It shocked and horrified the world back in 1984, and 30 years later, it still retains its emotional power. It inspires emotion, even out of context. And that is what you want. Evoking emotion is the first step in motivating action. Click on the image to read about The Bhopal Medical Appeal, founded 10 years after the leak. They’ve used “Burial…” on their website, using it as a tool to motivate supporters to respond with action. They’ve brought the city hope and to a place where recovery feels like a possibility.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Michael Selissen May 15, 2018 at 12:22 pm

Although the image you included may be uncomfortable to some, it is an honest and representative portrait of the damage inflicted by the gas leak. But the image’s effectiveness comes not from its shock value. But because it goes beyond offering evidence of the leak’s aftermath to saying something universal about loss and parental love. Take away the hand and you’ve lost that connection with the viewer as well as its emotional stickiness. Unfortunately, the other photos on BMA’s site don’t stand up to this and one other taken by Rai. It’s a lesson for nonprofits that well-executed and well-edited and photos can be just as effective than the written word (if not more so) at motivating action .

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