The Photograph We Are All Talking About

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.

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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?

On Birding

I have always considered myself to be a fan of birds. I keep a bird feeder and a bird bath in my yard, I am delighted if I happen to see a nest when I’m out for a walk, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never grumbled about the sounds of chirping birds waking me up in the morning. However, I have never really done any “birding” until very recently. I’m still very much a novice birder with so much to learn, but I can already see the appeal.

I have learned that early morning is a good time to go birding and since I’m a bit of an early riser anyhow, it hasn’t been too difficult to head out for a birding walk before the hustle and bustle of the day begins. There is something really peaceful about going for a walk at that time of day, and the possibility of spotting bird activity is an added bonus.

Paying attention to the birds has taught me to slow down and to see things in a different way. Before I used to walk for walking’s sake, for exercise. When we head out on a birding walk, we go a lot slower. Sometimes it takes hours to cover a path that we’d normally cover in 30 minutes. I’m not normally a patient person (once during a yoga class I actually thought “we could speed things up if we didn’t hold these poses for so damn long.” Clearly I have a lot to learn about yoga too.), but the slow pace we’ve adopted on birding walks has a wonderfully soothing quality to it.

I’m on Vancouver Island this week, taking part in the ASLE conference (affectionately known as the “Friendly Greens” by some of my blogging friends). Before the conference began we spent some time outside of Victoria. Our adventures have included some birding, and it has been so much fun! At Buttertubs Marsh in Nanaimo we saw several American Wood Ducks, a few Spotted Towhees and an Osprey. We saw a Kingfisher on Gabriola Island, many Stellar’s Jays during our jaunt to the Pacific Rim National Park and some California Quails just outside of Nanaimo. While I was sunbathing on the beach on Newcastle Island, Laurie went for a walk and saw a Black Oystercatcher. I’m sorry I missed that one, although I did enjoy my snooze in the sun.

I’ve also discovered that birds generally don’t hold still and pose for pictures and, since I’m still figuring out all the bells and whistles on my new camera, I’m not the quickest photographer in the world. Still, I did manage to get a few shots of some of the birds we’ve encountered on this trip.

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UPDATED: I finally did see a Black Oystercatcher! Yeah!

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New Camera!

My little point-and-shoot digital camera is on its last legs. My mom gave it to me when she upgraded about 3 years ago, so it is about 6 years old. I have taken thousands of snapshots with it, but when it was becoming apparent that it wasn’t going to last much longer I started shopping around for a new one. I’d read some good things about Canon’s PowerShot SX1 IS and it seemed like a good fit for my needs. If I were still shooting professionally I would have gone for something like this little beauty, but that isn’t really necessary for the kind of photography I do now. I wanted something lightweight and compact enough that I can bring it on hikes, but I also wanted something that would allow me to take some decent pictures while on those hikes (especially since I’m gaining new appreciation for birding). Anyhow, I finally went to Future Shop and picked up a new camera today! So exciting!! I’m dashing off to my writing group meeting now and can’t spend much time playing with it tonight (so much to learn, so many settings!), but here are some early results.

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Annoucement – Dianne Bos Lecture

Interested in Photography? Want to know more about the History of Visual Culture?

Join us for “A brief history of the Camera Obscura, the Pinhole Camera and the
Photobased Work of Dianne Bos.” This is a public lecture by Dianne Bos, presented by the Department of Visual Arts, Brock University

Friday, November 7th
Noon – 1pm (Bring your lunch!)
GLN 162
All are welcome!

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End of May

I can tell it is nearing the end of May as I’m starting to feel more energetic and inspired. The May blahs happen every year and I don’t know why. You’d think it would be the most exciting of months — spring flowers are blooming, the promise of new beginnings in terms of research projects and travel, etc. But instead I usually spend the entire month feeling wrung out, tired and guilty for not being able to jump head first into my research. On an intellectual level I know that the transition from teaching days to research days takes time (and, yes, I know that good pedagogy involves one’s research, but I’m talking about what the day-to-day pattern looks like — am I prepping for class or am I at my desk writing a draft of an article?), yet each May I struggle with this. And, just as regularly, towards the end of May I start feeling energetic and excited about research projects I’m working on.

I’ve spent this week in the archives doing research on a really interesting woman who I first learned about 13 years ago. I’d sort of forgotten all about her in recent years, but she popped into my mind the other day and, on a whim, I decided to spend some time digging about in the archives this week in an attempt to piece together more of her story. It is fascinating. I’m still processing all that I’m reading, so I am not ready to post it here yet, but I will one day. I spent the entire day today reading letters, wonderful handwritten letters that are so tender and intimate. I fell in love with the story being told through these letters and was completely mesmerized. I slipped into that weird state of mind that only happens to me when I’m doing archival research — I zone out and ignore all else but the documents I’m working with. The hours just fly by and sometimes I even forget to eat! When I’m doing this kind of work I’m struck by the play between the very personal stories and the way those stories fit within the broader framework and context of visual culture studies. With each of the letters I read today I learned more about the day-to-day reality of being a photographer prior to WWII. I also saw a side of a woman who was much more than a “historical figure,” and this became especially evident as I read about her fears, her loves, her dreams and her ideas. I can’t wait to go back and read more tomorrow. I’m most certainly going to run out of days on this research trip!