Breda O’Brien: Syrian boy deserves better than moment of voyeurism

‘I feel that photographs taken after a tragic death demean a person’s dignity’

Aylan Kurdi, with his brother Galip, who both died trying to reach Europe: Aylan ‘deserves a public campaign to bring more of his fellow Syrians, and other refugees here’.

Aylan Kurdi, with his brother Galip, who both died trying to reach Europe: Aylan ‘deserves a public campaign to bring more of his fellow Syrians, and other refugees here’.

 

The picture of the little Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, who washed up on a beach in Turkey is utterly distressing. Clad in shorts and T-shirt, his little body has the floppy quality of a child deeply asleep.

I actively attempt to avoid such images. However, unless you live a life that is completely disconnected from the internet, it is virtually impossible to do so.

There have always been ethical debates about the use of graphic imagery, especially of dead bodies. Those questions have taken on a new urgency in the age of the internet. Not only are images disseminated with incredible speed, but they also pop up without warning.

A parent hurrying a child along a street has some chance of diverting attention from a newsvendor with graphic images on the cover.

In the internet age, toddlers as young as little three-year-old Aylan sometimes come across images that are psychologically searing. Graphic images have been around for a long time. In the 18th century, people like William Wilberforce and Josiah Wedgwood used them as part of their campaign to abolish slavery.

Their problem was that the horror of slavery was largely invisible to the British public. Eric Metaxas, in his Wilberforce biography Amazing Grace explains that most British people in the 1770s had never seen a black face, much less a slave.

The slaves were kidnapped in Africa and shipped straight to the West Indian sugar plantations. Almost no one in Britain had seen someone flogged, or branded, or subjected to thumbscrews.

As they spooned their sugar into their tea, most people were not aware that it might as well have come saturated in blood. Many slaves were worked to death within a few years.

Campaign

The campaign also used a famous image of a slave ship. This did not appear to be a graphic image at all, until you realise that what look like tightly packed bales of produce are in fact hundreds of chained slaves.

The dry, factual commentary accompanying the image somehow brought home to people the utter indignity and humiliation endured by their fellow human beings. One could say that forcing people to face reality worked, and that Wilberforce gradually raised the consciousness of British people.

Women wore the image of the kneeling slave as jewellery, and men used it to imprint a seal on letters.

Mind you, it took 45 years from Wilberforce’s first speech to the eventual abolition of slavery, so it certainly did not work swiftly. However, artist’s impressions of slaves look very mild in comparison to what we have been exposed to in the last 15 years alone – images of people falling or jumping from the Twin Towers, aircraft disaster victims, people burned and left as human-shaped ashes in Iraq – the list goes on and on.

Photographs of Aylan and his slightly older brother, Galip, who also drowned along with their mother, are all over Twitter and Facebook.

Depressed and traumatised

Late last century, it was used to describe people switching off from distressing images, or becoming numb to them.

Apparently, people felt helpless, and resentful not so much of the conditions that gave rise to the horrific photographs, as the organisations that exposed them to it. Becoming numb to horror is still a problem but there is a new factor.

By “liking” or retweeting such images do people feel they have actually done something, when in fact, all they have done is experience a fleeting horror?

The Vietnam War is often cited as an example of when a self-censoring press started publishing the truth. The images of the My Lai massacre, with tangled bodies of women, children and babies helped to turn the tide against the war, as did the famous image of nine-year-old Kim Phuc, running naked from a napalm attack that had burned the skin from her body.

Perhaps then such images had more shock value and more possibility of changing public opinion, than today, when a strange mixture of instant outrage and political apathy rules.

I feel that photographs taken after a tragic death demean a person’s dignity. There are other images of Aylan and his brother circulating, ones where they are just two giggly little boys. One features a huge white teddy.

If anything, the latter pictures are even more heartbreaking, and force us to realise that the horrors of forced migration involve not just anonymous strangers, but real families, people who in slightly different circumstances could be our neighbours and friends.

Aylan Kurdi deserves better than a moment of voyeuristic shock. He deserves a public campaign to bring more of his fellow Syrians, and other refugees here.

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