Aylan Kurdi’s body was found on a beach in Turkey in September 2015. Lifeless, his innocent body was dressed in a little red shirt and boots. At just three years old, Aylan Kurdi brought immediate light to a crisis previously ignored by the mainstream media and the rest of the world. When I first saw this image in September 2015, I remember staring blankly at my computer screen with tears rolling down my cheeks. I wasn’t sad or angry, I felt numb and empty. I remember being mesmerised by his little red shirt. There is no denying the overwhelming sadness this image brings us. However, there are certain questions and issues around this image that are important for us to address as we look through a lens at people and a world far from us.
Why this image?
Thousands of photos have been captured documenting the enormous movement of people since the beginning of the refugee crisis during the Arab Spring. The photo above is an example of a photo that would typically be used by the media to sensationalize and dehumanize refugees and their threat to our way of life (Klocker & Dunn, 2003).
‘Images of children suffering form the ultimate emotional argument, compelling us to move from sentiment to action, from the particular to the universal, from passivity to engagement’ (Kennicott, 2013). People around the world reacted to this image. It may not have been for the right reasons, but they saw shame and horror that they couldn’t ignore. (Sontag, 2003).
To look or not to look? To publish or not to publish?
A debate which arose following the publication of the photograph of Aylan’s body was whether or not to show the image, and whether or not we should be looking. Channel 10’s The Project stated that they would not show the image as it was ‘too distressing for viewers’ (Ting, 2015), followed by host, Carrie Bickmore, breaking down expressing ‘I am lucky that I and my children live in Australia’ (Ting, 2015).
“A picture of a dead child is one of the golden rules of what you never published.” (Laurent, 2015)
What is interesting is that the network’s primary concern is the wellbeing of its viewers. That they’re doing their audience a favour by not subjecting them to such horror of the reality of this migrant crisis. What about Aylan? His father? His Aunty? What about their distress and suffering?
A view that some may share with Sontag, is that by capturing images of suffering, ‘where news has been converted into entertainment for a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, is that everyone becomes a spectator, suggesting that there is no real suffering in the world’ (Richard, 2010). Richard then goes on to suggest that we as ‘consumers of globalized media should refuse to look at photographs of suffering because suffering’s urgency is thereby diminished’ (Richard, 2010).
‘Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering, are those who could do something to alleviate it.’ (Sontag, 2003, pp. 37)
The Independent (as illustrated above) took another stance by putting Aylan on the front cover. By doing this, they are refusing to igrnore this issue and reaching out to those with the right to look who can do something about this suffering. And is that something that we as global citizens should be doing? Educating ourselves about what is happening in the world, and being motivated to do something about it.
The West vs. The Rest
Laurent expresses that the child’s ethnicity played a critical part of the photo’s reception. He explains that ‘dozens of African kids have been washed up on the beaches of Libya and were photographed and it didn’t have the same impact’ (Laurent, 2015). This is then illustrated by Carrie Bickmore and the world’s reaction thinking that could be my child. Ethnocentrism is a key issue in mainstream media, why do we only pay attention when there are terrorist attacks in Paris but not Aleppo? Is it up to us as global citizens to seek global news, or should we sit back in our beach chairs and wait for it to be handed to us on the front page of a newspaper?
Other significant images of struggle and suffering
Whilst the image of Aylan Kurdi’s body is one whose importance will linger, there are many other significant photographs which capture the struggle and suffering of refugees. The image above ‘Hope for a New Life’ was captured by Australian photographer Warren Richardson in August 2015. A baby is being passed through the border from Serbia in to Hungary (World Press Photo, 2016). This image won the World Press Photo of the Year, a highly prestigious title in the name of visual journalism. And looking back over the past winners, there have been many which carry a similar theme. Where an audience sits at their computer screen, flicking through winning photographs of people subjected to torture, abuse and suffering absolutely unimaginable.
We have two options. The first is to look away. We can ignore this little boy, face down on a beach, and lay on our beach chairs and carry on with our lives. Something the Australian government would prefer to do. Or we can choose to look, we can choose to be upset, confronted or angry. And we can choose to do something about it.
You can see, what I regard, the most important photo of 2015, Aylan Kurdi found on the Turkish beach, here.
You can see the Project’s take on reporting this news here.
Klocker, N & Dunn, K. M 2003, Who’s driving the asylum debate? Newspaper and government representation of asylum seekers, ‘Media International Australia incorporating media and policy’, No.109, pp. 71-92
Laurent, O 2015, ‘What the image of Aylan Kurdi says about the power of photography’, Time, 4 September, viewed 19 March 2016, http://time.com/4022765/aylan-kurdi-photo/
Kennicott, P 2013, ‘Why Syria’s images of people suffering haven’t moved us’, The Washington Post, 13 September, viewed 20th March 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-syrias-images-of-suffering-havent-moved-us/2013/09/13/30407f98-1bb3-11e3-8685-5021e0c41964_story.html
Richard, F 2010, ‘The Thin Artefact: On Photography and Suffering’, The Nation, 23 November, viewed 19 March 2016, http://www.thenation.com/article/thin-artifact-photography-and-suffering/
Sontag, S 2003, Regarding the Pain of Others, Chapter 3, Hamish Hamilton, London, England, pp. 36-52
Ting, I 2015, ‘The Project’s Carrie Bickmore breaks down over image of drowned Syrian toddler’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 September, viewed 19 March 2016, http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/tv-and-radio/the-projects-carrie-bickmore-breaks-down-over-image-of-drowned-syrian-toddler-20150904-gjetma.html
World Press Photo, 2016, ‘World Press Photo of the Year’, World Press Photo, 28 August 2015, http://www.worldpressphoto.org/collection/photo/2016/spot-news/warren-richardson