The Alan Kurdi Debate
The photograph of a lifeless 3-year-old Syrian boy face down on a Turkish beach shocked us to the core. It appeared on front pages, news websites, Twitter feeds, Facebook posts, and television broadcasts around the world, bringing unprecedented attention to the Syrian refugee tragedy.
The boy, Alan Kurdi (evidently wrongly identified in news media accounts as Aylan Kurdi initially), was among the steady flow of desperate Syrians seeking refuge in Europe aboard small and overcrowded vessels crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Strong waves apparently forced the boat carrying Alan to capsize, leading to the deaths of 12 people including the boy’s mother and 5-year-old brother.
The image of Alan, taken on September 2, sparked a debate about whether publishing the photograph was journalism or voyeurism. Many media organizations showed reluctance to run it, instead opting for a frame showing his partially obscured body being carried away by a Turkish police officer. Max Fisher writes in Vox: “There is a line between compassion and voyeurism. And as that photo was shared and retweeted over and over again, converted into listicles and social-friendly packages, it felt more and more like the latter.” Many shared the feeling that the image was another violation, and that withholding the image showed respect for human dignity.
Such concerns are valid, which is why the decision to publish or not to publish was debated so thoroughly in many newsrooms. But in this instance the photo achieved the higher journalistic purpose of informing the world about news that we need to know about. It did so in a way that humanized a tragedy that has otherwise become numbingly familiar with almost daily accounts of refugees fleeing new conflict zones or drowning in the sea.
Aiden White, writing in openDemocracy, where he includes some good links to the discussion, argues that the disturbing image helped media and social networks “shape the refugee crisis into a more sensitive, humanitarian and people-focused story.” Indeed, the image prompted debates from Britain to Australia on whether leading developed nations were doing enough to alleviate the humanitarian crisis including taking in higher numbers of refugees. British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President François Hollande were reported to have been personally moved by the image. On September 10, President Barack Obama announced that the United States would admit 10,000 refugees over the next year, compared to 2,000 this year. Senator John McCain presented a blow-up of the photo on the floor of the United States Senate to urge stronger American leadership in the Syrian crisis.
Aiden White noted how the Alan Kurdi photo even seemed to change some hard-line attitudes inside newsrooms :
Some media were forced to reverse their previously hostile coverage of refugees. The Sun, Britain’s leading tabloid newspaper, quietly erased its promotion of dehumanising rhetoric from columnist Katie Hopkins who in April referred to Mediterranean refugee victims as “cockroaches” and said: “Show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care.”
In Germany, Bild, the country’s best-selling newspaper, performed a dramatic act in response to a public uproar over its decision to use the image: on September 8, it published its print and online editions with no photos at all. In France, Le Monde director Jérôme Fenoglio defended his paper’s decision in a front-page editorial: “No voyeurism, no sensationalism here. But the will to capture a part of the reality of the moment. Maybe it will take this photo for Europe to open its eyes.” Olivier Laurent has a good discussion of the newsroom decision-making on TIME magazine’s Lightbox blog.
The photo of Alan was taken by Nilüfer Demir of the Turkish Dogan News Agency, who explained her actions in an interview here.
AFP’s Bülent Kiliç, the Turkish photographer who won the World Press Photo 2015 contest for the best spot news photograph (covering the Istanbul protests in 2014), has done superb work documenting the tragedy of the Syrian refugees this year. Check out a gallery of his photos here.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported in August that more than 4 million Syrians had registered as refugees with the agency. The UNHCR reports that more than 300,000 refugees from Syria as well as other conflict zones like Iraq and Afghanistan arrived in Europe via Mediterranean crossings so far in 2015. This year as of August some 2,500 refugees and migrants are estimated to have died in the process; the figure was 3,500 for all of 2014.