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The Powerful Psychology Of The Photo Of A Dead Child That Rocketed Around The World

The burial of the 3-year-old drowned migrant, Alan Kurdi CREDIT: AP, SIPAN IBRAHIM
The burial of the 3-year-old drowned migrant, Alan Kurdi CREDIT: AP, SIPAN IBRAHIM

The crisis in Syria has triggered the largest humanitarian and migrant crisis since WWII. For many, that tragedy was personified this week in the photo of a small boy in a red shirt and tiny trainers, washed up on a beach in the Turkish resort town of Bodrum (the distressing photo is embedded later in this post). That three-year-old boy was buried Friday in the town of Kobane, which he and his family fled, by his father, the lone survivor.

He has been identified in the media as Aylan Kurdi, though his aunt told the BBC that the accurate Kurdish spelling of his name is Alan. Three-year-old Alan and his family, including his five-year old brother Ghalip, mother Rehanna, and father Abdullah were among a small group of migrants attempting to cross from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos, and thus into the European Union. They were reportedly trying to reach Canada, where Abdullah’s sister lived. Of the Kurdi family, only Abdullah survived the tragic trip. Fourteen of the party of 23 migrants are believed to have perished. Five of the dead were children.

The photos of Alan in particular have been shared widely on social media around the world. Suddenly, the deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean, a tragically common occurrence, inspired widespread outrage. Artists around the world referenced the photo to draw spotlight to the crisis. Headlines asked if this one picture would shift our view of refugees.

In a blog post, Peter Bouckaert, Director of Emergencies for the Human Rights Watch, explained why he shared the photo — which went viral even as publishers debated over the ethics of the graphic content.

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“Some say the picture is too offensive to share online or print in our newspapers. But what I find offensive is that drowned children are washing up on our shorelines, when more could have been done to prevent their deaths.”

In a tweet, Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, called the photo the “biggest indictment of collective failure.”

ThinkProgress spoke to Aya Mhanna, a clinical psychologist and group therapist who works with Syrians and activists in Gaziantep, Turkey — a city near the Syrian border, about two hours from where the Kurdi family fled from — about why the original photos, the most affecting of which shows Alan lying lifeless and alone on the beach, are so jarring.

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“This photo showed in a very inactive way with a kid, alone, something people are dealing with every day…Here is this baby alone, not with other people, no mother, no father, no police shouting.” And in its passivity, it made it easier, or perhaps less threatening, for Europeans to talk about — for though the migration crisis is not exactly new, “it’s a bit of a taboo subject in Europe… People don’t want to talk about it in a good way or a bad way,” said Mhanna.

More than 2,000 migrants have died this year alone while attempting to cross the Mediterranean. Although that number comprises multiple nationalities, Syrians make up a large proportion. Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, more than half of the country’s population has been killed or displaced, either within Syria or to other countries. Four million Syrians have fled Syria, and another 7.6 million are internally displaced. The exodus has placed a strain on Turkey, Syria and Jordan, who are hosting most of Syria’s refugees.

But for many Europeans, the scope of this tragedy remained unfathomable, until the photo of little Alan began circulating on social media.

The photo first began trending under the hashtag #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik, Turkish for “humanity washed ashore.” Perhaps the power of the photo is that it does show humanity, lending a personal face to what UK Prime Minister David Cameron described in “dehumanizing” language as a “swarm” of refugees.

The photo recalls another photo of lifeless youth on a beach, that of the young Palestinian boys killed in the Gaza strip by Israeli forces last summer. Those photographs likewise shocked the international community and put a helpless, tragic face on larger horrors. Alan’s photo has also been compared to Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo Napalm Girl, credited with ending the war in Vietnam. Already, people are citing this heartbreaking photo of little Alan as the one that will change the debate on the global refugee crisis.

How many pictures do we still need to see of this to make the world blink?

This photograph, said Mhanna, is particularly powerful because of its juxtapositions. “It touches everyone because it contradicts the usual perception of things,” she said.

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Unlike photos of adults, which Mhanna said people tend to rationalize and read their own opinions into — such as blame over choosing to make the journey — a dead child’s helplessness is particularly psychologically stirring. “Here’s this dead baby who can’t think and couldn’t do anything.”

The composition of photo almost looks familiar, to any parent. Alan could be sleeping. And in addition to being a child alone, said Mhanna, the photo draws contradictory power because it is on the beach near a well-known resort town — which most people associate with summer, sunshine, and fun.

When she first saw the photo, said Mhanna, “psychologically, I was really angry. No one can see this picture and not be moved. But then…I was angry, because how many pictures do we still need to see of this to make the world blink?”

Nilufer Demir, the photojournalist who snapped the photo, told local media that her reaction to the scene was “pain and sorrow…I have photographed and witnessed many migrant incidents since 2003 in this region… Their deaths, their drama. I hope from today, this will change.”

And already, it has. In reaction to the photograph, Ireland’s Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin resolved to do more to help desperate migrants, while a petition by ordinary citizens in the UK for their government to take in more refugees has over 100,000 signatures. In Canada, where the Kurdi family was headed and had given up hope of legally immigrating to, Alan’s death is resonating in the current elections, with politicians promising to examine and reform their visa processes.

“I’ve worked for the UNHCR for more than seven years and, to be honest, this is the most generous response I’ve seen in terms of the way it has touched people and their willingness to offer help on a very personal level,” said Laura Padoan of the UN refugee agency, about the UK response to Alan’s photo.

Even that may not be enough, according to Mhanna. “I don’t know what will happen, but something needs to be done. I wish something will happen. That the war will end. I don’t think something will last, except maybe easier rules and regulations. I don’t think that will be enough.” Mhanna said that until the war ends and Assad is stopped, nothing will be enough.

About the global conversation spreading in response to the photograph, Mhanna, who has been working with Syrians and activists for three years, is cautiously hopeful about the way people are finally addressing the issue. “You have this positive reaction where people are talking and they are sharing and saying we need to take action.”

But she also warned that when people take the photo and photoshop it onto other images or spread it widely without context, it risks objectifying the image. In so doing, the photo can become yet another object — like the rubble of Aleppo, to which the world has become desensitized, said Mhanna. This risks destroying the humanity that makes the photo so powerful.

Overall, though, Mhanna expressed frustration. The global reaction may be positive, but it is too little too late.

“Why does it have to take the dead body of a child for people to take notice of this humanitarian crisis?” she asked.