The Screaming Child: Affect and “Innocence” In John Moore’s Photograph

I imagine that most people have, at this point, seen an image of a toddler asylum-seeker from Honduras screaming and sobbing as an ICE officer questions her mother. You know the one, I’m sure. The 2-year-old girl is wearing a pink jacket and pink shoes, her hair curls towards her face. She looks like she is screaming, more than crying.

The photo was taken by John Moore; more about the photo can be found here.

I’ve seen the photograph shared over social media many, many times over the past several days. It’s possible that I’ve shared the photo when I’ve shared articles about the current migrant crisis – the photo has become ubiquitous and synonymous with the cruelty of the policy of separating children from their parents as they cross the US-Mexico border.

Today, an anarchist facebook group I follow posted their irritation, outrage, and sadness that a White artist had created a charcoal portrait of the little girl, in the same pose, still screaming. Trauma porn, they called it. I shivered when I read those words. Because of my uncertainty about the photograph’s intense reception and the effect this may have on the little girl in the photo, I have decided to not insert it here.



Photo by Brandi Redd: more here.

I suspect the image of this child has helped people become outraged about the current policy to separate asylum-seeking families at the border – one that, it seems, Trump may end. However, we need to think about why this image, in particular, speaks so much to us. The other pieces of John Moore’s collection, some of which are available here, have not been shared quite as much as this one (at least, I have seen it less on my facebook timeline).

I suspect the attraction, the allure, of the screaming child is because (1) it features a young toddler and (2) only the toddler’s face (there are no adult faces) is in the photo.

In “Migrant Girl,” Getty Images Foto interviews Moore:

“She was told to set the child down, while she was searched,” Moore tells FOTO. “The little girl immediately started crying. While it’s not uncommon for toddlers to feel separation anxiety, this would have been stressful for any child.” All of this happens while remaining just inches from her mother; the picture, of course, forces anyone seeing it to imagine the anxiety that a complete physical separation would cause.

It’s easy to empathize with the child, we are told here.


Silvan Tompkins, a mid-to-late twentieth-century psychologist, describes nine key affects which, Tompkins writes, are biologically-based and innate. These affects combine with memories and one another to create sensations that are understood as emotions.

The Tompkins Institute outlines these nine affects with a brief explanation and, in most cases, a picture of an infant or a toddler experiencing one of the affects. Tompkins’s nine affects are: distress/anguish, interest/excitement, enjoyment/joy, surprise/startle, anger/rage, fear/terror, shame/humiliation, disgust, and dissmell.

In their introductory paragraph on the affects, the Tompkins Institute writes:

Observing his infant son, Tomkins marveled at the amount of information an infant, fresh from the womb, could communicate. In the sabbatical year he took after Mark’s birth, he noted distinct differences in affective experience on the newborn’s face and in his body. Tomkins went on to spend years testing and refining his assumptions about affects. While there are other theories of basic emotion, there is as yet no consensus among theorists on the building blocks of emotion. We find Tomkins’ naming of the affects to be the most complete, explanatory and predictive.

Perhaps, then, there is something “easier” about seeing affects in the faces of babies and young children. Children have less life experience, less memories of previous emotions to pull from. This ease-of-reading a youngster’s face may contribute to the allure and upset of this photo. (Although, I must admit that I see a mix of affects in the photo: mostly distress/anguish, yes, but also some fear and disgust. There are other photos in Moore’s collection that, to my mind, are simpler to analyze using Tompkins’s affects.)

Then again, the reason this particular image has become the siren call towards ending the process of separating families from one another at the border may be because certain Americans are more comfortable empathizing with a so-called “innocent” undocumented immigrant/asylum seeker.

We might gravitate towards this image because it perpetuates the myth of the “good” immigrant, the “good” asylum-seeker. This child is a child, and a young one at that! It’s not her fault!

I remember hearing this language in the discussion about Trump’s desire to end the DACA program: “it wasn’t their fault!” Dara Lind, writing for Vox about DACA, writes,

“It explains why many Americans who don’t necessarily support wide-scale legalization of unauthorized immigrants think of DREAMers as “good” immigrants.”

While obviously children had less agency in their decision to come to this part of the globe than their parents, casting their parents as “less” good or “less” worthy than them is, I think, untenable for someone seriously committed to progressive immigration reform or a utopian world-without-borders.

And, of course, the distinction between the “good” asylum seeker and the “bad” asylum seeker becomes even more ridiculous when we are talking about… well, asylum seekers.

I tell myself to remember this when looking at photographs of the horrific conditions these children are in. Socially constructed narratives about who ought to receive empathy are deep-rooted and hard to change. The process of undoing these narratives takes work. Self-reflexive, auto-affective work.

I hope I am not engaging in the business of trauma porn or showy instances of ally-ship. I hope, I hope.

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