In October 2015, Getty Images photographer Jeff Mitchell took one of the more poignant photographs of the migrant crisis occurring throughout Europe: a line of hundreds of people, primarily men, crossing a central European border.
The image emphasized both the astounding mass of people displaced from their homes and in search of respite as well as the massive burden placed on European countries tasked with providing for their shelter.
The image became one of the more recognized photographs documenting this issue. Then, something unexpected happened. Two weeks before the UK’s Brexit vote, the photo was used for a poster that many considered to be anti-immigration — unveiled by Nigel Farage, the leader of the radical right political party UKIP, on behalf of the Leave campaign.
The day of the unveiling, Farrage announced that this “hard hitting” picture would connect with the British public and “no doubt rattle the establishment.” Then, Farage took to the streets with vans emblazoned with the image, blown up to cover the sides of the vehicles. Dave Prentis, leader of the opposing UNISON trade union campaigning for Britain to Remain, reported the image use to the police as a “blatant attempt to incite racial hatred.”
“It was already a quite well known and familiar image, but the use immediately caused an uproar at the national level,” Getty Images Vice President of Editorial Content Hugh Pinney said. “The implication of the poster is that this queue of migrants was going to be queuing up at the doorstep of middle Britain, filling our schools, hospitals and taking away our jobs. A second, darker response suggested it was a similar composition to an image of Nazis rounding up Jews, and this second [archival] image was also in circulation.”
As a result of its usage, Mitchell’s “Breaking Point” photo became touted by many as an important political image for 2016. In fact, The UK Political Studies Association shortlisted the image for their Political Image of the Year Award, which honors the image that best visually represents the political issues of the year.
Did the image contribute to the Leave campaign’s success? The controversy over the photograph did enable the Leave campaign to discuss immigration on a level it might not have reached otherwise, even with the eventual backlash. But both Pinney and Mitchell agree that the negative publicity generated by the use of the image had the opposite effect on the UKIP campaign than intended, being openly challenged and derided by the public.
“People in the U.K. are quite media-savvy,” said Mitchell, who has won many awards for his photojournalism over the years. “There is a lot of information out there and people aren’t so easily sucked into propaganda. They are dubious about political parties. [The photo] may have affected certain parts of the population with a certain mindset, but it wouldn’t have won the vote for the Leave campaign.”
If nothing else, the photo highlights the responsibility of the viewer to be aware how they may be manipulated in any highly charged political environment. It underscores the fact that ultimately, in the information age, visual literacy can be more powerful than propaganda.
Explore more images from the moments that defined 2016 at Getty Images’ 2016 in Focus digital experience.