Shock followed the publication in newspapers and on web sites of the photograph of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who drowned after the boat in which he and his family were fleeing to safety capsized.
More than 300,000 people have crossed to Europe by sea so far this year and more than 2,600 have died doing so. Many of those making the voyage are refugees from the civil war in Syria, now in its fifth devastating year. The Kurdi family had been making the arduous journey across Turkey in the hope of gaining refugee status in Europe.
On 7 September 2015, The Guardian newspaper ran an account of why it chose to publish both the photo of a Turkish policeman carrying Aylan’s body (evoking lines by Wilfred Owen about the pity of war: “Move him into the sun / Gently its touch awoke him once”) and the more gut-wrenching picture of Aylan’s lifeless body face down in the sand (“If anything might rouse him now / The kind old sun will know.”)
Debates in news rooms and on social media about “the justification of confronting readers with stark images of an innocent victim of the intensifying refugee crisis” reflected what Jamie Fahey, the writer of The Guardian article, called “a deep sense of unease about the sight of a three-year-old victim of a war in the Middle East being washed up on the outskirts of Europe.”
Katharine Viner, Editor-in-Chief, clarified, “It was very important to us that we placed Aylan’s death in context, with some serious reporting about what happened to him and the broader picture of current political and social attitudes towards refugees across Europe, particularly in Britain and Germany. I still think it was right to use the pictures, but I might be wrong about that, and I’m aware that good intentions and serious intent are not always enough.”
The article made reference to other photos that had appeared “in the public interest” over past decades: the little girl Kim Phuc in Vietnam in 1972, the grimly unforgettable picture of an incinerated Iraqi soldier at the end of the Gulf War in 1991, and Ferida Osmanovic, the young mother who hanged herself in a cornfield after the fall of Srebrenica in 1995.
These three photos came out of war situations, when we might have expected to see casualties and when – usually after days or weeks of relentless media coverage – we have been anesthetised to the effects of arms and armaments on frail human bodies. And, as The Guardian article noted, “News photographs or footage, when used in the context of reporting, can galvanise public opinion and become tipping points in changing attitudes and awareness – and political responses to events such as conflicts and famine.” Few would disagree, although the news value of “proximity” (how close to home a story is) often dictates its real impact.
The photo of Aylan was not directly linked to a war context. It followed on from the long-running saga of refugees, economic migrants and others trying to escape situations in which life had become intolerable. It came after many stories and images of people desperately trying to enter the Channel Tunnel or to cross parts of the Mediterranean in search of safety and security. In other words, while we expected to see struggle, and while we had already seen death on our own doorstep, we did not expect to see the body of a small defenceless boy.
How could this terrible event have happened in the “civilized world”, i.e. Europe? Surely such things only happen “over there”, where someone else can be blamed? To publish photographic evidence of the European failure to address this crisis adequately was tantamount to holding up a mirror to political ineptitude and the absence of a groundswell of public opinion calling for humane measures to tackle what The Guardian calls “Europe’s biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War.”
The decision to publish the photos under such circumstances was morally the right one. Unless people see at first-hand the consequences of policies carried out in their name, it is all too easy to turn a blind eye.
Beyond the image of the policeman gently cradling Aylan’s body – a modern-day Pietà of the most heart-rending kind – are the questions: Why? How? Who is accountable? What can be done to prevent a recurrence? We fear such images because they reveal what we would rather not see and invoke a compassion that too many have forgotten. And many people would argue that under these circumstances the role of media with a conscience is to say “Enough is enough!” and to provoke the cry of shame that others would rather not hear.
Aylan Kurdi will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. Not for playing football for Syria, or for writing poetry, or for a scientific discovery that changed the world. He will forever be the boy on the beach. Why? Because we put him there.