When news outlets began publishing the AP photograph of a Syrian toddler lying face down on a beach in Greece, the world suddenly took notice of the refugee crisis. Even after hundreds--perhaps thousands--of photos of the crisis, none had attracted the attention that this one had. Do a Google Image search for "syrian refugees" and you will see the horrific results of that upheaval. But none as powerful as that little boy. In addition to a variety of reactions to the photo, there was also some coverage in the media as to why that particular picture captured the world's attention even after many other images of the crisis did not. One analyst said it was the boy's shoes, another said it was the way the rescuer looks down at the child.
I think the reason is the same one that makes anything compelling: specificity.
In art, whether that's photography or writing, it is the specific that makes us feel something. In this case, the very singular, personal view of a child was identifiable to people, even to those who had never had to flee their homes. It is by capturing a small moment in time that makes that moment relatable. It is the careful details that makes an image, a story, or a piece of art ultimately universal.