O.M-R. – Will there be a before and an after the publication of the photo of Aylan Kurdi? The by now iconic (or memetic) image of the three-year old Syrian toddler, whose tiny, lifeless body was picked up by a Turkish police in Bodrum at the Aegean sea shocked the European public in early September, leading political representatives to make some of their most deeply felt statements in recent times. The image also highlighted the absence of a universal code about what is appropriate and necessary publishing. It was not the first photograph in the current refugee crisis of a deceased child that circulated in the media, but this one had an exceptional impact. In its simplicity, its immense brutality and tenderness, the photo of little Aylan embodies the tragic and absolute vulnerability of the displaced victims of the wars in the Middle East, poignantly conjuring our collective unconscious: there is something deeply solemn, almost sacred, in the image of a child who seems to sleep peacefully. Scholars will continue analyzing the more subtle reasons for the prominence of this photo in the future, just as they do with other photographs that have gone down in history like that of Kim Phuc Phan Thi, running naked after a napalm attack in the early 70s during the Vietnam War.
Several media, following an unwritten rule of journalism in recent decades, decided not to publish the picture of Aylan lying on the sand and only the one in which the Turkish police holds him in his arms. The reluctance of these media to publish the close-up picture of the body of Aylan – and the detailed explanations by those who did – is indicative of the absence of a unanimous position on whether it is either appropriate or indispensable to publish the picture of a dead child. Do we need to see pictures like this to understand the dimension of the tragedy experienced by the refugees from the Middle East, in this case? Do we need to see in order to mobilize and demand a response from our leaders? Beyond our emotion and momentary empathy, do pictures like these change policies, situations – lives, in sum? The debate is not new, but should remain open; we should never stop asking ourselves about the ethical limits of published photographs and the motivations of both publishers and consumers of such images. New questions arise in the virtual world in which we live, where images circulate swiftly, formal and informal information channels that do not always share the same ethical and professional standards lead parallel lives, and images of refugees about to drown coexist promiscuously with beach holiday snapshots and ads of Mediterranean cruises in our social media.
Judging by the tide of compassion that swept over public opinion in the days after the publication of the photo of Aylan, it seems that people do need to see and be shaken by what they see to understand what is happening before they mobilize and demand action from their leaders. The continuous media exposure to human tragedies of all kinds has made us increasingly insensitive to the suffering of others, especially if it occurs in remote places or among populations with whom we identify less. This is what journalism scholar Susan Moeller defines as ‘compassion fatigue’. In order to rid ourselves off this fatigue we need images that are increasingly strong, respond to prevailing stereotypes of fragility and vulnerability (children, battered women …) or with which we can identify more easily. According to many, the fact that little Aylan resembled any European child is an added reason to explain the impact of the image.
No doubt, mainstream media have an obligation to inform the public of the difficulties and the horror individuals and entire populations experience across the world, and the public have the responsibility to receive this information and to not look away. However, is the duty to provide information the media’s only motivation for publishing certain photographs? Beyond the need to shake off our viewing fatigue and get us to react, isn’t there the need to compete with other media and especially social media to maintain followers and audiences? On the other hand, as media consumers, do we not satisfy some kind of self-complacency need as we feel momentarily moved by images like that of little Aylan?
About two decades ago authors began identifying what has since been termed the affective turn in the way we represent and interpret the world. To put it simply, the body, our affects and emotions have gradually taken over the role previously played by the mind, rationality and emotional distance in generating and filtering information and knowledge. The popularity of notions such as empathy and emotional intelligence and their application in many areas of everyday life, but also the recognition of physical and sexual difference, as well as the impact of painful and traumatic experiences in people, are symptoms of this shift. The affective turn has helped making visible and raising public sensitivity towards vulnerable and marginalized collectives or those perceived as different. From this point of view, regardless of their ephemeral nature, the compassion and empathy triggered by a photograph are something positive from the moment this can be used to change policies in favour of an underprivileged group. However, critical theorists like Sarah Ahmed warn us about the overrepresentation of the pain of the other (in this case, the refugees) because it implicitly establishes that the other can only overcome her suffering when we (Europeans) feel moved enough to act.
In this era in which emotions play out in a virtual world it seems difficult to establish common codes on what is appropriate and necessary seeing. On the one hand, the current (and in principle positive) emphasis on how we feel in the world and in the face of it makes it somehow legitimate for us to judge both appropriateness and necessity subjectively. Moreover, the responsibility to debate and decide on whether an image of potential public interest should be shared is no longer exclusive to news agencies and the mainstream media. Neither has it become exclusive to the myriad of existing websites. Each of us, in our social and professional media profiles, has become an individual news agency with the power to both transmit and censor images. Whether we like it or not, we are all bound to participate in this debate. Be that with our heads or our hearts, we should ask ourselves about the value and meaning of publishing, consuming and endlessly circulating images like that of little Aylan.
This article was originally written in Spanish and has been translated by the author. A shorter version of it was published in the printed edition of Spanish daily El Correo on 25 October 2015 with the title ‘Imagen y sensibilidad’. The author regrets the daily’s choice to republish the close-up photograph of little Aylan lying in the sand to accompany the text. Although she can understand the need to remind the readership of the photograph discussed, the aim of the article was precisely to question the need to reproduce images such as that of the dead little Syrian boy.