This week the world is talking about Nilüfer Demir’s photograph of little Alan Kurdi. This is a powerful, heart-breaking photograph, one that Demir has said she wishes she had not had to take. It has already been added to the list of the most “impactful news photographs” ever made, and for many has come to stand as shorthand for the complexity of the political, social, and cultural turmoil and tragedy that is the current refugee crisis.
There has been much debate about whether or not news agencies and media outlets should have published this photograph. Some are arguing that with this single image, much-needed attention has finally been focused on the fact that thousands of people are taking desperate measures to seek a better, safer, more stable life. People, governments, and media outlets are paying attention, and, if one reads the headlines, there is a sense that the collective outrage is growing. Organizations working to assist refugees report a spike in donations in recent days, something that is being directly attributed to this photograph. And yet, the publication of this photograph also raises other very important ethical issues. For example, as Natasha Lennard has argued, there is inconsistency in which dead bodies are deemed acceptable to be shown in the media. Further, some have made the point that while this photograph might have sparked outrage about the circumstances of this particular death it hasn’t necessarily translated in to increased public support for assistance for the thousands of people displaced from their homes in a broader sense.
Does a single image have the power to shift the conversations and political will towards a solution to the current crisis?
Demir’s photograph is powerful and has captured global attention because of who it depicts. Alan Kurdi was a young child, and this photograph goes against all of our ingrained ideas about what childhood is supposed to look like. This photograph also focuses on an individual, someone who had a name. It is easier for viewers empathize with an individual than with a large group.
There are thousands of people who, like Alan Kurdi, have been displaced from their homes. Some of them have been photographed, many have not. As Susan Sontag asked in Regarding the Pain of Others, “what pictures, whose cruelties, whose deaths are not being shown”? (p14)
Yesterday Muhammad Lila tweeted that he spoke with Alan’s aunt who has requested that people stop circulating Demir’s photograph. According to Lila, she would rather have people remember Alan as a happy toddler.
This plea is echoed in Lennard’s comments, as she notes that in images like this “the memories of lived lives are reduced to corpses.” How do we reconcile Alan’s aunt’s request with the arguments that Demir’s photograph has generated more attention on the refugee crisis than other images or reports have been able to do?
It seems there is a fine line that exists between witnessing and exploitation when it comes to photographs like this. I’m reminded of W. Eugene Smith’s powerful photographs of the mercury poisoning in Minamata. Smith’s photographs made visible a tragedy that was hard to visualize — what does mercury poisoning look like? Smith took what was for many an abstract idea and put a human face on it. Smith’s most famous image from Minamata is a photograph of Tomoko Uemura being bathed by her mother. Tomoko’s body showed visible symptoms of mercury poisoning, and her family agreed to allow Smith to take this photograph in the hopes that the circulation of the resulting image would raise awareness of the ways in which individual lives were transformed by the exposure to mercury. This, of all the photographs that Smith took, became the iconic image of the tragedy in Minamata. It evoked anger and calls for action. However, it was also a photograph that Tomoko’s family later decided they no longer wanted circulated. Out of respect for these wishes, Aileen Smith (who became the copyright holder of W. Eugene Smith’s estate after his death), transferred the copyright of the photograph of Tomoko Uemura to her parents who have since refused to allow it to be used.
In a similar way, Demir’s photograph has taken what is, for many, an unimaginable and hard-to-fathom tragedy and made it accessible. And this is really important. But what are we doing with this newfound awareness? Will anything change? If not, why is this image being circulated? Further, if, as Lila suggests, Alan’s family is requesting that Demir’s photograph no longer be used, do we have an obligation to comply?
In his powerful book, Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen, Fred Ritchin wonders “Which kinds of image-based strategies might best engage readers, and which might manage to respect the rights, and the agency, of those depicted?” (p.7) I think this is an important question for us to keep in mind as we grapple with the complexities of Demir’s photograph. Is there a way to bear witness to this crisis and to empathically connect with those at the heart of it in a way that does not reduce someone’s life to an abstract symbol?