A thousand words on the photographs of Aylan Kurdi

Guest blog by Russell Watkins, a PhotoVoice trustee and multimedia editor at the Department for International Development.

It is truly extraordinary how the tragic photos of the death of the 3-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi have transformed the debate around refugees in Europe in less than a week.

However awful those pictures were though, at least – at last – around the world, people and the media are now talking about the huge issues that underlie them. European and UK government policies have changed (to varying degrees), hundreds of thousands of pounds have been raised (very welcome), and tons of clothes, shoes and other items have been donated (though many of those items aren’t actually needed, or at least aren’t needed in Calais, where lots of people are trying to take them).

Sadly though, the numbers of people in need still far exceed even all of the extra support now being offered. Over 4 million (!) Syrian people have been forced to become refugees in the last 4 years, on top of hundreds of thousands more who have fled from other conflict affected countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Mali and Libya. The vast majority of them are fleeing conflict or persecution, not just unemployment or poverty. These people are, in the main, refugees – as opposed to economic migrants – and as such they are entitled to protection under international humanitarian law. To understand why this distinction between the terms ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ is important, and why those differences matter, it’s worth reading this article by UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency.

The photographs of Aylan Kurdi also raised important questions around dignity and ethics. They weren’t especially ‘graphic’ images, in a conventional sense – even though they clearly depict a dead child. The mainstream media has long shied away from using extremely graphic photographs of dead people, often preferring instead to tell us that such images exist, but that they are ‘too distressing to broadcast or show’.

But the images of Aylan were (still are) graphic, just in a tragically different sense. They had already been circulated widely and quickly on social media, and seen by many people before mainstream media organisations decided to run them on their websites, TV channels and newspaper front pages over the following days.

Despite the influence of social media – which may well have influenced editors’ decisions to use them – had the mainstream media not also run the images, it is arguable that we wouldn’t have seen governments across Europe being forced to react in the way that they have over the past few days. So in this sense, they are images that are not only iconic of a human tragedy; they are images that have actually changed both the political mood and public perception.

Perception is a key word here. Many people who have been forced to flee from their homes often leave with little more in the way of belongings than the clothes they were wearing and what they could carry in their arms. Besides that, one of the few things that they still possess in a less physical sense is their dignity – and this is something that can all too easily be stripped away by how they are depicted – and thus perceived – by others.

The scenes across Europe over the past few weeks have lent themselves to dramatic news coverage, with boats full of people landing on Mediterranean beaches, crowds being held at railway stations and scuffling with police. Comparatively little media space has been given to more considered photography of individual people and their stories.

I write this with two hats on. I’ve been working on the Syria crisis for much of the last 3 years, in my role at the Department for International Development. I’ve been to Jordan and Lebanon numerous times and met many Syrian refugees in the formal and informal camps and settlements in both places.

So I can honestly say – because I’ve seen it – just how much incredible work is being done by colleagues in DFID and across the UK government, by the Lebanese and Jordanian governments and the citizens of those countries, by UNHCR, WFP and international aid agencies like Save the Children and International Rescue Committee, to try and help support and protect people who just want to go home – except they can’t because of the brutal conflict.

I’ve also seen the extraordinarily harsh conditions in which these people are somehow managing to survive – in the deserts of northern Jordan, and in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley. So I can understand why many of them now feel that they need to seek refuge in Europe instead.

With my second hat on, I’m one of PhotoVoice’s trustees. PhotoVoice has a proven track record in working with refugees and displaced people to help them represent themselves through participatory photography projects, from working with partners supporting Syrian refugees in Jordan, to others helping African women who had been trafficked from Ethiopia and Eritrea before finding sanctuary in Israel.

Participatory photography projects like these can have a transformative, empowering effect on many of the people who’ve participated in them. They might not be the most immediate projects needed, but as displaced people become increasingly at risk and increasingly disadvantaged if they are displaced over a prolonged period of time, participatory projects arguably become even more valuable than might at first be apparent.

But in the here and now, how best to help people that we’re seeing more and more in our newspapers, on our mobile phones and our TV screens? Unfortunately there are no easy solutions. One simple answer though is to donate cash – if you can, whatever you can afford to. Donate to UNHCR, UNICEF, Save the Children or any other recognised charity. In the short term they really are best placed to translate your cash into what people actually need.

Of course, PhotoVoice welcomes donations too, and will channel any support received into delivering more participatory photography projects to help people represent themselves. We work with trusted partners to deliver those projects with refugee communities if we collectively believe that such projects will be of benefit to them.

And finally, keep looking out for and sharing photos like those of Aylan Kurdi.

Hard as these kinds of images are to look at, just for a moment it feels like the world is actually looking, and listening too. Perhaps if we had seen more images like them over the past few years, a lot of people would not be in quite the same desperate situation that they are now.