The Story Behind the Viral Photo of a Crying Child at the Border

Anyone who has been following news in the United States recently has probably heard about the turmoil surrounding the separation of undocumented immigrant children from their parents at the southern border of the country. One photographer documented the human face of this policy with a viral photo of a crying toddler at the border.

CNN Reporter Ana Cabrera interviewed Getty Images Photographer John Moore about his image. Moore was in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas photographing Border Patrol activities as people were crossing the Rio Grande river from Mexico at night. He spoke with the mother of the two-year-old child in the image who said they were asylum seekers from Honduras who had been traveling for a month. Federal agents asked the mother to put down her child so they could body search her. They were later transported to a U.S. Customer and Border Protection processing center.

Moore says that the series of photographs he captured that night were difficult for him to take "as a journalist, as a human being, and especially as a father" as he knew that the children would soon be separated from their parents into separate detention centers. For this particular image, he said he only had a matter of seconds to move into position and get down on a knee to be at the child's level before taking the picture. The mother and child were put into a van and driven off soon after, presumably to a detention center for processing.

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Let me get this straight. The mother and child were driven off in a van together. We don't know if this child was separated from her mother, but this photo is used to anger the public about a policy that allegedly separates children from their parents without cause. Should the question of this article be about the misrepresentation of one's photos for political gain -- by an alleged news organization?

CNN does not exactly have a reputation for insightful, levelheaded, and emphatic reporting when it comes to the current administration. Perhaps Fstoppers could do the real story of 2014 photos of would-be immigrant children locked up in chain link cages that also went viral this past weekend. CNN certainly won't. (Who was president in 2014.)

Better yet, perhaps Fstoppers would be best served if it avoided the presidential political theater that often thrives on raw emotion before the facts and logic catch up. Seems to me that there are plenty of politically charged stories about the Party of the Mirrors vs. the Party of the Mirrorless fueled by lobbyists from Canon, Nikon, and Sony that only Fstoppers can truly explore.

[Edited some horrendous spelling errors…where are those squiggly red underscores when you need them?]

Rex Larsen's picture

Garth, Hopefully Fstoppers will continue to publish stories like this one so more people, and possibly you, can learn about the purpose and benefits of photojournalism. John Moore's work tells the story of asylum seekers and U.S. border agents at the Southwest border. Moore and Getty Images did not seek to anger anyone. It's called reporting. People who support Mr. Trump, John Kelly, Stephen Miller, Kirstjen Nielsen and Jeff Sessions may actually celebrate John Moore's moving images and cheer for more.
It has not been reported that the mother and toddler were separated but that is a safe assumption. Did you see the pictures of the toddlers shoe laces being removed, the mother in handcuffs, the pictures of children contained by fencing in buildings away from their parents ?

You want CNN to show empathy to the President and his administration ?
That's not the network's role. I bet you can easily access Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting outlets daily if that is what you seek.

So much of what we know about the world and the human condition we've learned from photojournalism.

And how much of that photojournalism involved photos that were fraudulently exploited for a cause?

All too often, it’s all about the production and the packaging of the photo – not the facts. Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs and Deadliest Catch has pointed out that stories are told from the production of the images. Producers have a story that they want to tell and package the images to tell it. But, this packaging may not be a true representation of the facts surrounding the images. If they wanted Deadliest Catch to be a comedy, they could have done so.

There’s a famous photo of a polar bear “helplessly trapped” on floating ice that became the poster bear for global warming. The fact that it swam to the mainland after the photo was taken tells a different story about being trapped.

CNN wants you to assume that this child was separated from its mother without cause and used this photo to stir the perception that all children are separated without cause. (There are cases where the familial relationship between child and accompanying adult is in question and separation is warranted for the safety of the child.) I want CNN and other “news” organizations to show empathy for the truth, regardless who is in office. There are numerous photos of children “caged” at the border under the previous administration. Were these photos given the same attention by CNN – or Fstoppers?

We can dive into the power of photos and the ethics of exploiting them when the facts are in question. It’s the spiral into debating political issues themselves that I seek to avoid in this forum. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not adverse to political discourse and the discovery of truth from fiction. But, I don’t think this is the forum for political discourse.

user-156929's picture

You bring up an excellent point, that being the purpose and benefits of photojournalism. That would have been a much better POV to address this photo. You being a photojournalist, how do you approach an assignment? Do you take photos to support a pre-written story or to support the story you find on the ground?

I spent several days digging into this and found more facts than I thought possible. Truths that have yet to be reported. With that said, the truth as usual has gotten left far behind. I learned years ago not to jump when the press and politicians get into these arguments and misleading statements.
Yes, this law has been on the books thru several Presidents. The detention centers were built and first used under the Obama Administration due to the mass of people coming over the border. Many of the children were not with their family but were being used to allow an immigrant to gain access using a false pretense (not a very good way to start a new life off.....with a LIE to Border opinion).
Yes the numbers have increased substantially due to the loop holes immigrants found in the law and they have learned if a mass push happens at the border they can usually get in. And finally the overwhelming majority of these occurrences are happening not at border crossings but, over fences and onto private property making their entry illegal and allowing for WHOEVER (both bad people and good people) to get in.
If the politicians would set down and discuss this a solution could be found quickly, INSTEAD OF POLITICAL WRANGLING FOR AN ADVANTAGE AND MORE FACE TIME ON THE NEWS. And if their were more truth reported, it would help all of us better understand what is, and how come, this is going on.

David Pavlich's picture

The problem with photojournalism is that it assumes truth. Well, there was a picture of some kids in black metal cages. The image was attributed to ICE in 2018. However, somebody did some "research" and said that this was a fib. The images were really taken in 2015.

But then, it turns out that both were lies. The picture was, indeed, from 2018, but it was taken at an immigration protest in Dallas, TX. The kids in cages were props for the demonstration. Photojournalism has become another mechanism in today's media malpractice industry. Doesn't say much for the profession.

Studio 403's picture

Studio 403
Being doing some research on this kind of photojournalism. From what I have discovering, some parents are giving their children to smugglers to get them in to the USA. I call myself a brilliant skeptic about news today regardless of the source. In my view CNN is the least trusted. Further research shows under the Bush and Obama administration these occurred many times with no fanfare from news outlets. And it the mid elections season, so motivation should be questioned.

What is heartbreaking, to see a young child exploited for emotional, political, and economic gain. “Just saying” as we southerners say”. Americans are the most generous nation today. We all value and want the underdog to win. No one wants to see injustice. Nor do I.

I am not hear to blame Getty or the photographer for this photo. I hope we all know anyone can find a child crying and shoot it. Go to a mall, playground. I had two grandchildren. My grandkids know how to game me to get “stuff” They are good cons in a good way and is funny to watch them work their “magic” on a soft hearted old man. All they have to do, is look at me with those eyes, I just pull out my wallet and give it to them.

I am so sad to see a child crying like this, but the context for this needs further investigation. It obvious most all mainstream media has a strong bias against our President. And the Democrats from my perspective are have gone over the wall , (pun intended) emotionally. I know my character is woefully lacking and I have at times been the chief hypocrite in my family. So I throw no stones or cameras at photojournalist. Context is the key I think, deep investigation behind photojournalism I would suggest. Journalist are getting rated below the Elmer Gantry's of the world.

I think people are missing the point. It is not under which administration was this law enacted or which administration enforced the law. The issue is “is this a moral enforcement of the law”? Is it moral to enforce separation of families? If it is then the law must be enforced. If it is not, then in all conscience the law should not be enforced by those who are on the ground.

I can see under a different administration in the not too distant future that the border guards could end up in court for enforcing this law and so abusing peoples human rights. It has been shown that the “I was only following orders” defence does not work. So I think the boarder guards are now in a no win situation that is not of their own making.

user-156929's picture

Your summation would be reasonable except it's based on an incomplete set of facts. :-/

OK, are children been forcibly separated from their parents?

user-156929's picture

You're isolating one aspect from the overall situation. If the parents were serial killers (I'm NOT saying they are) you wouldn't hesitate to separate their children from them. In any case, congress is currently working on a solution with the president's support, which is the right way to resolve these kinds of problems.

Well, separating children from their perants is a fairly major aspect.

As I write, this the President has signed an executive order to stop the forcable separations. Something that just a few days ago, he said that he did not have the power to do. I am so glad that he "found" the power. He is such a legend.

user-156929's picture

Agreed. Separating children from parents is a big deal. Some people, though, are trying to assign blame disproportionately; misrepresenting the scope and complexity of the situation; and prescribing impractical solutions.

The presidents Executive Order contradicts a court's decision, limiting the length of time juveniles can be held, and is dependent on that court changing their order so, yeah, he *doesn't* have the power to do it.

I'm pretty sure anything I write will be met with "but" so this is probably a waste of both our time.

BTW, did you read any of the recent articles, referencing input from the child's father, regarding TIME magazine's use of the photo in question? Interesting stuff! The child wasn't separated from the mother...there were other children left at home...the father didn't agree with her decision to do it...she didn't tell him she was doing it...and, having spoken to her, he said the child is safer now than during the trip north.

So here is what happens when you do it the way Obama did. Your damned if you do and your damned if you don't. Oh and human traffickers is an Orwellian way of saying slave owners.

Motti Bembaron's picture

Fingers are pointed in all direction but at the end of the day people look at it as a US diplomacy. No one should care which government initiated or/and applied it, it's how the US, its police, people etc. deal with illegal immigration.

Although many children crossed alone, many are accompanied by their family.

One has to ask the obvious question, why? Why separate children from mothers and fathers. If it's not for health reason (and it's not), then it's done for the sole purpose of punishment.

If that's the case then it's a new low.

user-156929's picture

You've eliminated a lot of possibilities, including the correct one.

Motti Bembaron's picture

I eliminated one possibility; health. If it is the reason, it's an excuse.

user-156929's picture

Perhaps "discounted" would have been a better word. There are other possible reasons to separate children from their parents. It happens all the time due to a myriad of issues. It's not necessarily health or punishment.

The good news is, I just read congress is looking at possible fixes for the situation and the president has said he's on-board.

Motti Bembaron's picture

Good to hear but regardless, the idea is something that belongs to a different era (very different era).

No one in the right mind and with an oz of compassion would as much as even consider it. It really is a reminder of a different world.

No excuse. It's a method some shady regimes would come up with.

I am a very logical guy and I cannot come up with any reason to separate young children from their parents.

None. Could you shed some light on why?

user-156929's picture

This probably doesn't apply to the vast majority of the cases in question but, if the parents are crack-heads or bank robbers or serial killers or terrorists or.... But I don't want to make a mockery of the current situation. It's easy to isolate this one aspect from the whole and demonize it but it's just not that simple. Of course no normal person would consider it, in a vacuum, and I don't want to place myself in a position of defending it, but it's not in a vacuum. It's part of a complicated, regrettable situation that has to be dealt with.

Motti Bembaron's picture

Special cases are of course to be considered. Children are taken from parents everyday due to their negligence and incompetence.

I hope it is as you suggest and it's not blanket policy of ruining families and countless childhoods.

user-156929's picture

Nobody likes it.

I'm not a fan of Trump and I certainly don't believe that we should be taking children from parents who enter the US illegally. But does anyone have an issue with the way that this image is being portrayed? We don't even know if this family was split up. The girl was crying because her mom had to put her down for a second? All kids do that. You can see in the other set of images that the little girl is totally fine.

If it comes out that this little girl was separated from her mother, or even worse; lost and never reunited with her, it does tell an incredible story. But unless we get that information, I'm not sure I can put this on the list with other historic images like this CNN host was.

Rex Larsen's picture

Again, I suggest Fstoppers feature more content about photojournalism. There are many misunderstandings, false ideas and statements about photojournalism in the readers comments including Lee's.

What are my false ideas?

Rex Larsen's picture

Hi Lee, You mentioned issues with how John Moore's picture or pictures were portrayed. Countless publications use Getty images so I prefer to comment on his work minus headline, cropping and caption choices, as well as any text that accompanied them online or in print. Moore has been covering Southern border issues for some time. The encounter with the woman, child and border agents was fairly brief. Neither Moore or Getty reported that the asylum seeker and little girl were separated. That is a fairly safe assumption since the mother was told to remove the child's shoelaces before she was handcuffed and taken away. Journalists are careful to avoid assumptions. The administration publicly announced their zero tolerance policy and choice to separate children from adults. I was struck by your comment on the child crying. Does the crying need to last a certain length of time to be an emotion worth capturing and publishing ? Often people are happy until they are not. The two had been traveling in dangerous territory for nearly a month. They were taken into custody in the dark.
It's possible the child was very hungry and not scared but I doubt it. It's risky to report on emotion so many journalists use the work "reacts."

Allen makes a good point about news pictures sometimes being symbolic but they need to be supported by facts and accurate captions. John Moore is a traditional photojournalist. He showed us what happened in front of his camera. What being arrested in the night looks like and how people react to it. It's quite straight forward.

Describing Moore's picture as historic or iconic is of course a matter of opinion. The CNN host offered her's. I respect yours.

The President of the United States has been demonizing journalists on a nearly daily basis. Some commenters here expressed criticism of photojournalism. There are bad photojournalists, some who lost their jobs, as well as bad doctors, bad ministers, bad Presidents. I'll repeat, much of what we know about the world and the human condition comes from the work of photojournalists.

One commenter questioned if news photographers sometime have a fixed story line in their head before the work begins. That can be good and bad. Good shooters like Moore do careful research and also let the story play out and reveal itself. A story can suddenly change in an instant.
I've shot countless stories after the reporter had left. Photojournalism is the marriage of words and pictures and is often a collaboration of writers, editors, photographers, and page designers.

We should be concerned about the access of journalists to see and share what our government is doing. Considering the behavior of our current administration I was surprised by Moore's access.
John Moore ,and others like him, have risked their life for years to report on important issues so the rest of us can safely be informed.

I do a lot of corporate photography now but worked as a photojournalist for nearly forty years.
I like Fstoppers and encourage the staff to feature more content on this subject. Maybe reach out to Moore for an interview.

Anonymous's picture

Great points, Rex

Anonymous's picture

I'm not sure that the facts of this specific case matter (as much as it pains me to say this). The image is quickly becoming emblematic of the country's immigration policy, and may very well become iconic. I'll reserve judgement on it's timelessness for a while since it is only a few days old, however.

I brought up a little earlier, but it may be enough for an image to evoke an event or mindset rather than accurately portray it. Whether or not the child is ultimately separated from her mother doesn't alter the fact that 1) her mother was arrested crossing the border 2) the photo was taken at a time when other children are definitely being taken from their parents, and 3) the entire process is extremely emotional and traumatic. That's what the image is trying to convey; not necessarily the facts.

As an example: the Kevin Carter image of the starving boy in Sudan, with the vulture waiting in the background. The image evokes the desperation and looming death that thousands of Africans faced during that famine. It succeeds in evoking the horrors of this event. But the child–it turns out–didn't starve to death. He was already being treated by the UN (you can see the UN bracelet on his wrist if you look close) and lived for years after the image was taken. Does that ruin what Carter was trying to convey?

Now whether or not this is right or ethical for a photojournalist is a whole other set of questions I think, and speak to the possible need for greater context and transparency (as well as a better public understanding that photographs are not just mirror images of reality, but come with a set of decisions and biases). But sometimes, what a photo evokes cab be greater, and in a sense truer, than what it actually depicts.

I think it does take away from Carter's image. 99.9% of people (including me) didn't know that information and if we did, the image wouldn't have a very big effect on us.

It's like seeing a photo of a lion sneaking up on a crying child only to find out that there is glass between them and it was taken at a zoo and the kid was crying because his parents wouldn't buy him a toy.

I'm not blaming the photographer, but it seems like the news jumps on these photos and then twists the story to make it seem like something is happening when it probably isn't.

Anonymous's picture

See that's interesting: I'm not sure if that extra knowledge takes much away from Carter's image for me. I mean I get why it does for you and others, but honestly, I don't expect any piece of evidence (images, video, text, etc.) to be "accurate," and assume at least a bit of bias. The emotion it evokes, and the thoughts it makes me have about the event are strong enough.

I think it boils down to finding an acceptable level of truth in an image. That level is what is so debatable and personal. For me, it might be enough that the image is emblematic of something that is actually happening, rather than a perfect example of it. For others, that rightfully may not be enough. But we'd be fooling ourselves if we think we can find complete and objective truth in a photograph like this.

Agree that some in the media (and the public in general) will take an image and totally destroy the initial intent.

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