I'm going to talk about the photo of the dead Syrian toddler. You've been warned. I won't show the picture itself, or the other ones like it, because you've all probably seen it by now and I want people who have chosen to not see it to read this entry.
But I'm going to start with a story that I've probably told before, and probably even told on this blog, about images. The year is 1990. My country, among other countries, goes to war with Iraq. Like a good peacenik child of peacenik parents, I am opposed, and am as outspoken about the issue as a precocious 11-year-old can be, which is to say that everyone in school thinks I'm weird. I have lived my entire life in the shadow of the atom bomb, with Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes
ringing in my ears. I know what war does.
And yet I didn't. The images in the newspaper, on the television, were of sanitized battle, red dots and green night-vision like a video game, with nothing like the photos of the My Lai massacre to drive it home. One could be forgiven, watching the news, for thinking that smart bombs were so smart that they managed not to kill anyone at all.
As a teenager, I saw the images the news hadn't shown. Banned in Canada, the photo was of the charred corpse of an Iraqi soldier. You can Google that too. He was the enemy, a bad guy, the guys our brave soldiers had fought, and he spent last moments trying to escape a burning car, screaming in agony. This was why I'd opposed the war. I wondered, had those around me seen it, would they have opposed the war too? It's so easy to erase the identity of the enemy, of the Other, when you don't see his suffering.
As a country, we went to war meekly, unquestioningly, like we typically do. Today, I see kids watch those sanitized video game images, dream of going to war themselves. They play Call of Duty
and watch drone footage of bombing and relish in the carnage. The victims, real and virtual, are not human to them.
Which brings me to Aylan Kurdi, age three.
Social media does what social media does. The leftists post about the crisis in Syria, washing up on Europe's shores. They cry out for someone to do something. Along comes a shocking photo that jolts everyone. Those previously uninvolved and unaware share it. Facebook bans the images. The discussion shifts from the tragedy to the image of the tragedy. The tone shifts. Everyone becomes a monster.
Sorry, I'll need to talk more about the image of the tragedy than about the tragedy itself. In this post, anyway. If you want to talk about ways to help, that's what the comment section is for, and I'll post any useful information I glean.
The first disclaimer: I speak only for myself, not anyone on either side of the debate.
The second disclaimer: Despite how ugly the tone has gotten online, we're all actually on the same side. Unless you voted Tory or UKIP or are secretly Donald Trump, you probably are pro-migrant justice. If you're not, please do the world a favour and DIAF.
The first strawman: No one on the pro-sharing-the-photo side is saying that anyone is a bad activist or too much of a sensitive special snowflake to look away.
The second strawman: No one actually wants to look at pictures of dead kids on their FB newsfeed, okay? No one wants to see this image. No one wants kids to die.
I managed to find the post with all of the dead kid pictures, remove the thumbnail, and share. It took me about ten minutes to decide whether I should and then figure out how to remove a thumbnail on FB's newest redesign. I personally believe these photos should be seen. I am also aware that they're horrible to look at, and I don't want to see them, and they make me cry. I don't want to trigger anyone.
I posted a second article from the photographer that included a thumbnail with a less graphic photo. That was all last night.
This morning several of my friends posted that they would unfriend anyone who posted the dead kid pictures. Okay. Several other of my friends posted the dead kid pictures. Statistically, if you're interested, 100% of the people I saw write against posting were white Canadians. All of them were parents. Many of the people who posted the photos were people I knew from migrant justice activism and a few of them are Syrian. One of the latter commented on the irony of white Westerners ignoring all the Syrian toddlers butchered by Assad, which is a fair point. Some were parents, some were not. All of the people in this discussion, on both sides, are people that I respect and whose opinions I respect.
(By this afternoon, everyone had moved on to talking about Canada's culpability; the children and their mother would be alive if the Tory government hadn't refused their application for refugee status. The social media cycle is short like that.)
For years, involved in Palestine solidarity and anti-war activism, I posted dead kid pictures, thinking that they would shock the apathetic into action. Then I stopped, because I felt it was disrespectful to the dead and their families, and because I think we get desensitized to pictures of dead bodies. I think the global reaction to the pictures of little Aylan Kurdi illustrates the importance of these images, no matter how horrible it is to look.
A few points of discussion:Consent of the family:
This is the single most important question. Until this afternoon, we didn't know whether Aylan's family wanted the photo of his corpse to be shown. Now we know.
The father, who has suffered the worst a person can suffer, wants his child to be a symbol of the refugees' plight. He wants this to be seen.The feelings of the community:
How do these images represent the lives of people in the broader community? I'm not Syrian; when I posted the pictures, I was taking the lead from people more directly involved than I am.On that note:
A friend pointed out, rightly so, that we never see the bodies of dead white children. (I'm not sure if that's entirely true; we certainly did in the Sandy Hook massacre and the Oklahoma City bombing.) It's only black and brown bodies that are reduced to the moments of their deaths rather than to their lives. The feelings of victims of trauma:
The parent who's lost a child, for example, or the survivor of a war zone. That's why I don't think these photos should be forced on anyone (other than Tories, who deserved to have it shoved in their faces). LJ and Tumblr have mechanisms built in to prevent people from being triggered; FB is of course terrible at it. But this deserves consideration, of course.
Bottom line is that these images getting out has already had an impact. The atrocity stares you right in the face. It makes the Conservative politicians responsible duck for cover, at least for a few minutes.
It shakes up the apathetic. Which is why I think they need to be seen. Otherwise, little Aylan is just another statistic; after all, don't brown kids always die in large numbers?
Images have power. I can't say why one has more than another—my Syrian friends have been posting horrific images of dead children for years, with little noise generated outside their community—why this one has the potential to topple governments and maybe even save lives.
This is why, personally, I can't look away.