A Photo Speaks A Thousand Words

I am glad that more people are finally paying attention to the refugee crisis (and using the correct terminology). Even our PM has now been forced into saying that the UK will help.

As a historian, I view these events from the perspective of the present, but also from the perspective of the future and how they will be viewed looking back. The influx of refugees and migrants to the EU seems to be a watershed moment. It is also an example of how ordinary people can and do shape the course of history. The American Civil War was not initially fought to end slavery, but as hundreds and thousands of Southern slaves fled their plantations and presented themselves at Union camps, they forced the issue. So too, the thousands of people fleeing from war and poverty and washing up on the shores of Europe have forced the issue and have now forced European leaders (including our own) to deal with the situation.

None more so that poor little Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless body is now everywhere on social and traditional media. My husband doesn’t even want to go on Facebook at the moment because of it. He told me “it’s not that I don’t care, but I don’t want to see that. I already cared about the situation I didn’t need that photo to make me care.”

I think that it is right that the photo be published. I was upset by the story of the children that suffocated in the lorry; I tried to imagine the horror because I think about things like that and I empathise. I wrote to the PM asking him to help.

The photo of Aylan Kurdi seems to have done for the world at large what the news stories alone did for me. The photo is something tangible and easily shareable and it certainly has been shared a lot in the past couple of days. But it is not just the original photo and news stories that have been shared. I have seen photos that have been Photoshopped to show his lifeless body with cartoon angel wings, and a cartoon with his body lying outside a world map cordoned off with barbed wire.

I haven’t posted links to these images because I don’t agree with them. What right do people have to take this image, edit it, and flood the internet with cartooney-versions of a little boy’s death, so that forever more when people search for his name these images come up? To me, photos of his dead body, edited and added to by complete strangers is an entirely inappropriate “memorial.” I do agree with the original publication of the image because sometimes an image burns into the collective imagination and can help to change the course of history. But I do not agree with people editing and changing the image, even in “tribute.”

Who are you to take such an image, of someone else’s precious child, a child you have never met, and Photoshop it into something else? The image itself is powerful enough. That poor kid does not need angel wings. He is not an angel, he is a victim of a heartless and unfair world.

I hate images of my children being put on the internet without my consent. Have some respect for this boy’s family and for the boy himself. By all means share the image to raise awareness but leave it as is. Unedited, it speaks a truth (but not the only truth). Aylan was not the only child who died that night and there are plenty more still in danger.

Above all, he was a little human being. A little individual with joys none of us but his grieving friends and family know. By all means we should raise awareness and help other refugees, but we should be careful not to turn the memorialisation of a little boy we have never met and didn’t care about until his lifeless body washed up on the beach AND was photographed (other children who died that night; do we even know their names?) into a collective conscience-salving.

If you edit a photo of little Aylan and share it on social media but don’t write to the PM or your MP, don’t donate to one of the charities helping the refugees, don’t speak up when people try to demonize these people, then you are not helping. You are just engaging in a ghoulish exercise in social media-fueled narcissism.

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