​can a picture change the world?

A photograph of a three-year-old Syrian child washed up on the shore of a Turkish beach changed how the world thought about the refugee crisis last week. But should we really be so eager to share it on social media, and can it have any lasting change?

by Felix Petty
07 September 2015, 12:02pm

photography Nilufer Demir

All week my Facebook feed has been echoing back and forth with the photograph of Aylan Kurdi; in which the three-year-old boy lies dead, face down in the sand on a Turkish beach, the surf washes over him, a Turkish soldier stands above him.

Aylan is just one of over 2000 to have died so far this year making the crossing from across the Mediterranean to Europe. But Aylan, who returned to Syria with his dead mother and brother to be buried on Friday, is also just another statistic in a conflict that's killed over 300,000 people and has caused 4,000,000 Syrians to flee their country since March 2011. Nowhere is Joseph Stalin's comment, "the death of one person is a tragedy, the death of a million a statistic" more apt, more true, than in the case of Aylan and the wider Syrian population.

And as the image became unavoidable on my Facebook feed, the "public" mood seemed to change. "Public opinion" so resolutely against the swarm of immigrants, migrants, and scroungers amassing to enter Britain, was suddenly, with open arms, welcoming in the tired, poor, huddled masses; suddenly, through the figure of Aylan, the crisis had a human face we could all empathise with. Even The Sun has gone from publishing a Katie Hopkins' article in which she compared migrants to cockroaches to reprimanding David Cameron on not doing enough to help.

The image bears a striking resemblance to another, Kevin Carter's 1993 image of a skinny, dying, huddled Sudanese girl, suffering from famine, a vulture in the background, waiting patiently with hungry eyes. Like the image of Aylan, Kevin Carter's photograph sparked, equally, controversy, shock, horror, and a desire for change. Kevin Carter's image won him the Pulitzer Prize.

Photography Kevin Carter

But what are the ethics of publishing these images? Kevin Carter's image was restricted, in 1993, to publication in newspapers, and amongst the news it was always in context. In 2015, Aylan appears inescapable, not just in papers, but jostling for space on Facebook and Twitter, pushing up against event invitations, selfies, holiday pictures, funny videos, cute videos, pictures of your brunch, people's work, their musings, ramblings, their pets. Aylan's fate isn't just to change the debate, but to be nestled for eternity amongst the clutter of everyday lives lived on social media.

Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch, speaking to Time, suggested that the reason this photograph resonated more than any other from the crisis is that "this is a child that looks a lot like an European child. The week before, dozens of African kids washed up on the beaches of Libya and were photographed and it didn't have the same impact. There is some ethnocentrism [in the] reaction to this image, certainly." Whilst I'm not sure I entirely agree Peter Bouckaert's reaction, or at least, I hope it's not true, the rush to be outraged, to help, to be shocked, to do something, spurred on by the photograph and its journey across social media, does reveal something equally depressing; that it takes a photo of a dead child to get people to empathise with a conflict that's been going on four years, that's killed over 300,000 people already, that's killed 2,000 migrants this year. There is something emotionally selfish, certainly, in Aylan's journey across social media; a hollow desire to be seen to be feeling.

In this context, how is Aylan any different from Kony? How is Aylan any different from Cecil the Lion? If people didn't care about the death and destruction of the country before they saw this image, if people just two weeks ago were decrying the swarming migrants on their way over here, in two weeks time, when Aylan is no longer visible on their feeds, will they care anymore? Is Aylan's image a form of entertainment to us now? Reblogging and reposting a picture of a dead child the equivalent of slowing down on the motorway to see the pile-up.

You aren't forbidden from caring now if you didn't care in 2011, and of course, what the crisis needed was a way to change the conversation because too many unspeakably bad things were happening without enough people caring; but Aylan's death turns us into voyeurs of disaster. Why not simply give, instead of taking a selfie of you donating your clothing to a CalAid? If you do something good, and no one documents it on social media, did it really make a difference?

Is it emotional whitewashing for the people who were doing nothing two weeks ago? Who voted Tory or UKIP and fed insidiously into anti-migrant and refugee rhetoric? For the newspaper editors who ran editorials decrying the swarms on their way here to ruin our way of life? For the 67% of the British population who recently revealed in a poll they wanted to send the army to Calais to keep the migrants out? Are your tears a way of avoiding owning up to our culpability in the crisis? Will Bob Geldof do something? 

The picture may shock us into doing something now, but will it have any lasting chance for change? Nothing changed for the people of Sudan after Kevin Carter's picture shocked the world. Kevin's picture drove him crazy, haunted him, and one day, a year after taking it, he drove out into a suburb of Johannesburg and killed himself. Time reported his suicide note as saying: "I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain... of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners..." 

migrant crisis
Aylan Kurdi
kevin carter