“The Terror of War” © Nick Ut / The Associated Press

The 1972 image of a naked Vietnamese girl, Kim Phúc, running from a napalm attack taken by Pulitzer Prize-winner Nick Ut of the Associated Press, has become a fixture in our visual landscape. It is included on every “Ten/Fifty/Hundred Photos That Changed the World” list, present in most scholarly publications on war photography, and a regular feature in history textbooks the world over.

Imprinted on our retinas, it is here to stay.

Until it is not. Last month, Facebook removed a post about famous documentary photographs, including this one, by Norwegian writer Tom Egeland and temporarily suspended his account. Last Friday, Facebook hardened its position by deleting a post by the Norwegian prime minister who had re-posted the image on her timeline to criticize the corporation’s decision to take it down. Facebook took action against the photograph as a result of the company’s anti-pornography regulations, enforced both by human moderators and via a technology called PhotoDNA, which is designed to scan for images related to child sexual exploitation based on a database created by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The disappearance of the image from Facebook has prompted the resurgence of a long-running debate about the expansive censorship exercised by social media, about the freedom to look at and to publish photographs, and the ethics of spectatorship in general. The Norwegian paper Aftenposten featured the photograph on its front page on Friday, accompanied by a large Facebook logo, and an open letter headlined “Dear Mark Zuckerberg” that referred to the Facebook CEO as the “supreme editor,” a term obliquely echoing 1984’s Big Brother. As I write, many of my fellow media and photography scholars and my students have been reposting the image on their profiles as an act of resistance to Facebook’s policy.

Faced with wide criticism over its regulation of content, Facebook revoked its decision on Friday. The company’s official statement expounded on how difficult it is “to create a distinction between allowing a photograph of a nude child in one instance and not others” and to “try to find the right balance between enabling people to express themselves while maintaining a safe and respectful experience for our global community.” In explaining its decision to make the image available again to its 1.7 billion monthly users, Facebook acknowledged that “this photo is iconic” and recognized “the history and global importance of this image in documenting a particular moment in time.”

It is beyond doubt that Facebook, at times, applies its content policies overzealously and that the company’s tools for scanning and classifying visual data are imperfect. But I find the arguments presented both by those outraged by Facebook’s decision and by the company itself somewhat worrisome.

The opponents of Facebook’s decision to take down the picture quote its “iconic” status and undeniable place in the canon of twentieth-century documentary photography. Much of the public outcry over the photo’s disappearance conjures the widespread cultural fear of erasure by powerful institutions of similarly iconic images and texts that for decades have served as sparks for political activism or collective emotions. That fear, palpable in George Orwell’s 1984 and in Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, has re-emerged more recently in Dave Egger’s The Circle and Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad Love Story, books that argue that we are living the dystopian futures of the past right now.

Acknowledging the continued resonance of those fears, Facebook cites the photograph’s iconicity and “global importance” as a reason to re-insert it into the visual sphere. The photo’s institutional and historical gravity become its passport back to visibility.

But that reverence for icons, just like any reverence, should be viewed with suspicion, forming as it does part of the apparatus of cultural inclusion and exclusion. Photographic icons are stock figures in the visual sphere, well-suited to mass-mediated collective memory and to a broader cultural consensus of meaning. They commemorate decisive moments of history, reproduce ideology, and model political identity.

Nonetheless, the high visibility of icons often obscures images that are no less important or affective, but have not been recognized by mainstream Western audiences. My concern is about these other images—the thousands of images of children afflicted by war in Syria, Palestine, Israel, Ukraine, Afghanistan…children who may or may not be partially or entirely unclothed, the corpses of children, children ailing among ruins, children far removed from the hopeful and cleaned-up images of NGO campaigns. Who is fighting for these images which are taken off Facebook daily? What kind of institutional or historical shield are they offered? Who misses them when there are gone? Who reclaims them if they are not already iconic?

I want to call attention, also, to what happens when such photographs are visible and freely circulated on Facebook; and, in particular, to the gap between the ideal of reflective, ethical witnessing and the actual responses that these images sometimes elicit.

Last year, for example, an image of a different child, one who was clothed, featured prominently on Facebook: a photograph of a drowned Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, lying face-down in the sand on a Turkish island. While it travelled across timelines and profiles, it underwent a variety of aesthetic changes: it was cropped, made into a close-up, often oversaturated with color for more dramatic effect, accompanied by hashtags like #HumanityWashedAshore. The range went from mildly touching (though not particularly thoughtful) to utterly tasteless—

(Original photo © Nilufer Demir)

It was then used and further decontextualized in Photoshopped memes that removed the child’s body from the original background and portrayed it against different backdrops: a child’s bedroom, European Union quarters, paradise-like islands. Props like angel wings, beach paraphernalia, or a baby crib have been edited in, to showcase just a few of the endless variations.

Re-done, re-designed, conscripted by its users, Aylan became a piece of sentimental visual currency, a kitschy shrine, or a mournful allegory devoid of political significance. The uncontested visibility of this image sparks ethical concerns no smaller than Facebook’s decision to take Ut’s image down.

The debate around the image of a naked girl—a girl whose contorted face is more naked, more vulnerable, and more disturbing than any other of her body parts—centered on the public’s right to see an image. But the abrogation and defense of that right is just one of a number of important issues that contemporary conditions for disseminating documentary photographs—conditions that were so radically different in the time the photograph of Kim Phúc was taken —demand that we face.

In the 1970s, images were made available by small numbers of large media corporations that aspired to guarantee responsible image practices and to enforce a certain consensual set of ethics: journalistic truth, editorial transparency, the importance of engaged witnessing. Today, the idea of such ethics no longer holds true in the new media ecology, where the issues of machine learning and scalability often overpower human judgement. One of the crucial aspects of that ecology, and the one that needs to be urgently addressed by the company itself, is the unresolved stance of Facebook between “media” and “tech” company, as if this division is still possible today in the era of constant digital connectivity and user-generated participation.

The questions that we Facebook users need to keep asking ourselves are: How can we track the movement of photographs like the one of Kim Phúc? How can we map its changing meaning and impact, and assure its visibility? Should this visibility be preserved at all costs? And, what can we do to avoid missing—or misunderstanding—other images, which are just as important as Ut’s photograph, among the hundreds of millions of photos uploaded on Facebook daily?

—Marta Zarzycka

Marta Zarzycka is currently Visiting Scholar at the Center of Women and Gender Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. She teaches and publishes in the field of photography and feminist theory. Her book “Gendered Tropes in War Photography: Mothers, Mourners, Soldiers” is forthcoming from Routledge.