12 months ago, Russell Watkins, a PhotoVoice trustee wrote ‘A thousand words on the photographs of Aylan Kurdi’, considering the immediate response to the images of the young Syrian refugee as they were shared around the world. Kate Watson, PhotoVoice Projects Manager reflects on the impact of this iconic photograph one year on.
It’s a year since the photograph of Alan Kurdî, a Syrian refugee, provoked a wave of outrage and grief across Europe.
Few will need reminding of the image of the lifeless body of the three-year-old washed up on a Turkish beach, face down in the sand, his small palms open and upturned. The scene was captured by Nilufer Demir, from Turkey’s Dogan News Agency. Alan had drowned along with Galip, his 5-year-old brother, and their mother. Like thousands of others they were fleeing suffering in their homelands, attempting to reach Greece on an overcrowded inflatable dingy.
The image was featured on newspaper front pages and seen by 20 million people through social media. In the aftermath of Alan’s death, there were heightened calls for international leaders to reassess their response to the humanitarian crisis. Refugee discourse began to shift as did, political action.
Germany responded with an agreement to accommodate an unprecedented number of refugees. Other European leaders followed suit by expanding refugee quotas, with David Cameron committing to accepting 4,000 refugees annually until 2020. The anti-refugee rhetoric and imagery of mainstream media was superseded by front page rallying calls for support, human stories of refugees’ experiences, #RefugeesWelcome, #NoMoreDrownings. The image of Alan appeared to resonate where others had failed.
Photographs have the capacity to inform and educate society, offering the public an immediate and tangible impression of events and insights into people and issues. As a medium, photography can depict ‘the real’ and has the ability to bring these realities into the realm of the public’s experience and understanding. Yet the rapid proliferation of mass media photography and its use in the coverage of humanitarian disaster can too easily lead to the emergence of what some refer to as ‘compassion fatigue’.
In a culture dominated by media, the bombardment of crisis imagery has lessened the ability to shock, outrage or incite moral conscience. We digest tragedy on a daily basis, through 24 hour news reportage, social media, and relief agency appeals. These images too often adhere to formulaic models of representation – ‘flies in the eyes’ of malnourished children, or indistinguishable groups of refugees, lacking adequate explanation to describe events – all of which can reduce and divide, sometimes inviting empathy but rarely provoking sustainable action.
And yet,as the image gained momentum, it appeared to break through this exhaustion of crises imagery. The photo itself is graphic, but not shockingly gory. Its power, I believe, lies in its stillness, an image that silently conveys a tragedy. It is not a picture of a warzone in a little known country, but instead of a tourist beach. Many news agencies took the decision not to print the most graphic image of Alan’s body and others attempted to preserve Alan and his family’s dignity and privacy by pixelating the boy’s face.
Dimitri Beck, editor of the photojournalism magazine, Polka commented: “It’s not a sophisticated image, even in its framing, but the message is clear and direct: a kid has died and he’s being picked up like a washed-up piece of wood on the beach. There’s nothing more violent.”
This image of an anonymous child invites empathy by reflecting so many of our worst fears – ‘he could have been any one of our own children’. Alan was not part of the ‘swarms’, which had provoked fear and revealed our latent xenophobia. By projecting our own loved ones onto Alan, we ‘un-othered’ him and the tragedy became relatable, something that could penetrate our consciences and compel us to care. The image was credited with putting a human face to a crisis, provoking a visceral response that imagery of war-torn Syria and refugees en mass at border points, or crammed into overcrowded boats had so far failed to achieve.
Yet a year on, the novelty of Alan’s death has slowly faded. Recent Oxfam data recorded that the total number of refugees and migrants who have died while trying to reach another country has increased by more than a fifth in the last year – from 4664 deaths in the year before Alan Kurdi’s death to 5700 since. It seems our compassion, triggered by an image of a tragic death that we empathised with may not extend to these tragedies or the persistent problem of the 46,000 refugees and migrants, the majority women and children, living in squalid conditions in camps across mainland Greece. Surely these children too, ‘could be any one of our children’. But these children and their families are in danger of being forgotten.
As grassroots and humanitarian organisations continue to provide support on the ground in Greece, Calais and the Balkans, on the larger political stage, politicians who reacted to Alan’s image with promises of increased support have backtracked again and again – their initial commitment arguably framed in relation to the public outcry provoked by the image, rather than being indicative of an actual shift in their own attitude or political agenda.
Rightwing populists are on the rise, fences are being erected and borders are closing. Anti-refugee rhetoric has returned, with the media reverting back to a narrow reportage of events and the abundant use of stock imagery, deployed to create drama. In this spectacle, the context for the crisis – the on going Syrian conflict and Europe’s staggering lack of political will and humanity – is getting lost, resigned to the peripheries of western media coverage. Images that perpetuate anti-refugee sentiment are once again prioritised over what is truly representative.
And their viewers are hardening, where in the wake of terrorist attacks in Europe, ‘refugee’ is becoming increasingly synonymous with ‘terrorist’. In this context, it becomes difficult to distinguish between this current crisis and so many others, as they merge into one continuous global crisis. This imagery is numbing, making us indifferent or ignorant to what is unfolding. It is divisive, it pits us against each other – catastrophes are no longer considered amenable to change and our willingness to respond diminishes.
The photograph of Alan is not the first image of humanitarian crises to become iconic. Comparisons have already been made to Nick Ut’s image of the Vietnamese ‘napalm girl’ or the vulture and young Sudanese child captured by South African photojournalist, Kevin Carter. These images too have often been citied as photographs that provoked a shift in public opinion and political agenda. Like these images, the metonymic power of the photograph of Alan is undeniable – his tragedy acted as a symbol that represented the suffering of so many by the death of one, and must be recognised for engendering affect that instigated action at both a local and political level.
Whether this single image has been or holds the potential to move beyond iconicity and transform the public opinion, political will and legislation needed to bring about the sustainable change demanded by this on-going crisis, is something that is still to be seen.
* Alan Kurdî was initially reported as Aylan Kurdi. This article reflects the correct Kurdish spelling of the name.
Featured Image: ‘Indian artist Sudarsan Pattnaik created a sand sculpture of the image of Alan Kurdi’s body’ © Getty Image, 2016