On the ethics of publishing the photo of Aylan Kurdi

We need to be shocked now, so we may demand action from our government now. I think that trumps our squeamishness

Aylan Kurdi on the beach

Before I mire myself in questions of when and whether to publish shocking images, I should—must—begin by writing about the fact of Aylan Kurdi’s drowning and the refugee crisis in general.  If the central argument for publishing an image of a dead boy is that it ‘gets people discussing the issues’ then I think I have an obligation to do so, even if these thoughts have been stated earlier and more eloquently, elsewhere.

The first point is that this is an entirely preventable death.  It is not a natural disaster or even a motor vehicle accident, both of which could result in similar morbid scenes.  The boy was on the boat entirely because of the human system of who is in and who is out.  There was nothing in the world of biology, chemistry or physics that marked this boy for death (nor his brother Ghalib or his mother Rehan, who also died).  It was the system of borders and nationalities devised by humans that killed this family.  “I hope humanity finds a cure for visas” drew Khalid Albaih.

The second point is that the death was entirely foreseeable.  It is the predictable side effect of the decision to rein in the search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea.  Last year, Foreign Office Minister Baroness Anelay wrote:

We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. We believe that they create an unintended “pull factor”, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths.

This is bizarre and twisted policy.  To say that the provision of rescue boats leads to more deaths, is to suggest that withdrawing the boats will somehow led to fewer deaths.  That would only be the case if the refugees were rational decision-makers with meaningful choices.  But they are not economic migrants doing a cost-benefit analysis before their next career move.  They are desperate and out of options. The “pull factors” are neither here nor there—it is the “push factors” that are the primary motivation for escape.  The living conditions in Syria, as well as in Libya and elsewhere in North Africa, are still untenable and whatever steps the UK and the EU have taken to alleviate the problem, they have failed.  As the Kenyan born Somali poet Warsan Shire put it in her poem ‘Home

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land

I will also say this: the people who make foreign policy decisions are not stupid. They must know that withdrawing rescue boats lessens the “pull factor” precisely because drownings will increase.  It is a cynical and inhumane policy pour encourager les autres.

To publish or not to publish

Even before this week, editorial decisions regarding photos of people being killed were subject to much discussion.  The appalling murder of TV journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward on 26th August was broadcast live, and many newspapers carried images from the footage.

I have already written on this blog about how, on the day after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, only two of the London-based newspapers did not feature a photo of the death of Ahmed Merabet on their front pages (Merabet was the police officer stattioned outside the building).  The unanimity in editorial choices was broken by The Independent and The Guardian who were (interestingly) the only two newspapers brave enough to reproduce the image of Mohammed on the cover of Charlie Hebdo magazine the following week.

sun-front-page-detail-8-jan-2015Finally, I wrote last year about our newspapers’ apparent eagerness to publish iconic propaganda images staged by Jihadi John and ISIS, featuring the beheading of British hostages.  I noted that the News International titles, The Sun and The Times, were the most consistent in publishing the images of the moments immediately before death.

I think there is a conceptual difference between the images of the deaths mentioned above, and the photo of Aylan Kurdi.  In the case of all the Islamist murders, the intent was to cause a media frenzy, to sharpen the contradictions between Islam and the West, to catalyse division and the persecution of Muslims.  I such cases, it seems sensible to decline to give the killers what they want, and instead focus on celebrating the life of the victim.  Belatedly and with much self-congratulation The Sun took this approach when Alan Hemming was murdered.

That is not the intent with the sad image of Aylan in the sand.  It is not the propaganda image of an enemy, but the indictment of our own government’s foreign policy.  It is shocking and upsetting but it has galvanised the public to donate to relief causes and to put political pressure on politicians at the national and local level.

Journalist Liz Sly from the Washington Post wrote a passionate defence of her decision to share the images from the beach in Greece.  Her argument boils down to this passage:

My colleagues and I have been writing about Syria’s war for four years, about the desperation of the refugees who fled the country and the 250,000 people, including children, who have died over the course of the conflict. Some of us, Syrian and foreign journalists, have died, too, trying to tell their stories.

Yet it has seemed that no one really paid much attention — at least, not in terms of seriously trying to solve the problem, seriously trying to help.

If it takes photographs of dead children to make people realize children are dying, so be it.

Recent reports suggest that the father of Aylan takes a similar attitude.

That is not the last word on the issue, however.  I asked my Facebook friends what they thought about the image, and got some nuanced responses.

Michelle wrote:

It’s a heartbreaking image but is it shocking? I’m continually amazed how numbers don’t cut it to get a message to people. If anyone was shocked by that image they haven’t been reading any news for the past year.

Kathy responded:

I think it is something to do with the fact that to read something and enjoy or be horrified by it is very different to being faced by the stark image – books v films – somehow one can sometimes “read” and not take in and I think, because we cannot bear those awful awful numbers, we do not process them in the same way.

Yes. “A picture tells a thousand words” and all that, but it also tugs on heart-strings in a way that words often do not.  I wish this weren’t the case but I fear it may be how our brains work.

Michelle also said:

Someone also commented on my wall about the “outrage cycle” and I totally agree — I think the sentiment whipped up by publishing increasingly intrusive and sad images creates a kind of temporary direction of energy which might do something effective, or not.

This rings true.  The tabloids who previously demonised refugees are now jumping on the humanitarian bandwagon in a cynical fashion that is at once obvious and pathetic.  Here are examples from The Sun and the Daily Mail.

And the explosion of publicity given to this crisis also means other causes may be overlooked.  Marianne wrote:

Lots of disagreements between friends now.
Particularly noting the fairly desperate reaction of a friend who’s spent plenty of time in Africa and has seen many children suffer, so there’s the ‘which crisis deserves to get the attention’ issue a bit too.

Harpreet raised another issue that I had not considered at all:

Think carefully about the different ways white bodies are treated in the media compared to people colour. Esp. children’s bodies. You can connect the dots to Freddie Gray. Also, why is it that we have to see the body of a dead child to believe that these non-Europeans are suffering? I don’t have the answers but these questions form some of the context.

These issues are explored in greater depth by Chimene Suleyman at Media Diversified.

The answer is always the same: to raise awareness for human rights. It may sound well meaning but don’t be fooled by it. It conveniently overlooks that it is never white bodies that are worn or shown like this. Simply put, the bodies of people of colour are commodified for white gaze. They are used to sell t-shirts and newspapers and memes and clickbait. Their function is political and to push agendas. We are never allowed to just live.

I am not sure this is entirely right.  I certainly recall horrific images from the orphanages in Romania after the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu that galvanised charitable giving.  And of course the many images of the white Jewish vicitims of the Holocaust are what keeps the memory of that genocide fresh in our minds.

Those examples aside, Suleyman’s point is inescapable.  But is that the media’s fault?  Surely the reason why it is invariably brown or black bodies we see presented in this manner is that the humanitarian disasters happen in their countries, and not in those where white people live.  The racism here lies not in the editorial choices at the newspapers, but in the underlying foreign policy that allows things to get so bad in Syria and Libya that people will jump into the water to get away.  The white western world is usually cocooned from these kinds of conflicts, and our Governments could do more to prevent suffering elsewhere.  It would surely be a double tragedy if, in order to avoid presenting a brown person as a victim, editors allow white westerners to remain in their comfort bubble, never having to confront the implications of seclusionist foreign policies.

This thought holds for other iconic photos such as Kevin Carter’s ‘vulture’ images from Sudan, or the harrowing image of Phan Thị Kim Phúc running naked along a road in Vietnam while napalm burns the village behind her.

Kevin Carter

FILE - In this June 8, 1972 file photo, crying children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, center, run down Route 1 near Trang Bang, Vietnam after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places as South Vietnamese forces from the 25th Division walk behind them. A South Vietnamese plane accidentally dropped its flaming napalm on South Vietnamese troops and civilians. From left, the children are Phan Thanh Tam, younger brother of Kim Phuc, who lost an eye, Phan Thanh Phouc, youngest brother of Kim Phuc, Kim Phuc, and Kim's cousins Ho Van Bon, and Ho Thi Ting. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

In a challenging post entitled ‘5 Reasons You Shouldn’t Share Photos of Dead Kids on Facebook‘ Bernard O’Leary writes:

If you can’t make your case without resorting to pictures of corpses, then I’m sorry but you’re not trying hard enough. Yes, it is difficult to articulate these stories sometimes, but that’s our responsibility.

Bernard is right, but in an idealistic way.  Of course we should be paying attention and mere words should be enough.

But unfortunately, they are not.  Attention spans are short and the issues are complex.  It is not possible to berate or guilt people into just being better citizens who will read diverse media sources and form a view on every foreign policy issue.  To expect this kind of behaviour to happen any time soon is to be as ignorant of human nature as the Foreign Office Ministers who expected the refugees to stop their attempts to cross the Mediterranean when the funding for the rescue boats was cut.

The crisis is happening now.  Just as there is no time to wait for peace and good governance to break out in Syria and Libya, so there is no time for the comfortable residents of Europe to evolve into a more compassionate and informed electorate.  We need to be shocked now, so we may demand action from our government now.  I think that trumps our squeamishness, and is the only fitting response to the deaths of Aylan, Ghalib and Rehan Kurdi, and the hundreds of others who perished while we dithered.


3 thoughts on “On the ethics of publishing the photo of Aylan Kurdi”

  1. Correct. So the masses need gratuitous use of images to shake them out of their apathy and reach the level of empathy necessary to become outraged. They also need to see the crass self serving hypocrisy of the mass media and become angry. Anger is a pure emotion, an energy.
    People don’t get modern warfare. They cant, it’s too horrific and we see pictures only of the after effects of mass murder of civilians by sophisticated weaponry. It can’t be filmed properl when it’s actually happening except from a great distance. We need to see the missiles flying, smell the bodies burning and stare in numbed shock at the instant annihilation, dismemberment and incineration of humans, animals, trees, buildings…
    And we sadly need others to convince us that the victims haven’t been obliterated because in some way it must have been their fault. The scale of the the crimes perpetrated on them by weapons manufactured and sold by “our” leaders in conflicts sanctioned as necessary for our protection is too massive for us to assimilate.
    We are emotionally unable to conceptualise the use of continuing armed conflict directed against civil populations for economic benefit on a massive scale. Because that is the true reason for all of this. War makes money. It feeds and sustains capitalism. It makes us all “richer”

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