Since its publication, the heart-breaking and headline-making photo of the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach has been impossible to avoid online. But, asks Dotty Winters, does sharing such distressing images actually reach those whose minds need changing the most?
I shared that photo. That photo that everyone is so upset about, I shared it. Like lots of people I shared it unintentionally; I signed an online petition and the picture appeared on my Facebook timeline.
At that point I wasn’t aware that I had shared it, but I could see that lots of other people had, and that lots and lots of people were complaining about seeing it. I wondered how they could be more upset about a picture of a tragedy than they were about the tragedy itself, and I felt really angry.
When I first saw the photo it stopped me in my tracks and twisted my heart. My youngest child is also three years old, and sleeps in the same position as that gorgeous little boy was lying. In the midst of a crisis which was already making me upset and angry, that picture perfectly captured that human horror and tragedy of just one story. I couldn’t understand how anyone could look at that picture and not be moved to want to help.
“I’ve heard people make the case that if the photo causes people to take action, then it’s worth it. I’ve heard people paint this photo as a turning point in the debate about refugees. I’ve heard people describe the photo as manipulative, crass and misleading.”
People who were upset about the use of the photo had lots of very valid points: it’s unclear whether anyone’s permission was sought for the use of that image; it’s incredibly triggering for people who’ve lost a child, or anyone else; it’s an image which is potentially too much to bear if seen by people who are hurting, or struggling with mental illness, or grief.
Slotted in between people’s holiday snaps and updates from Candy Crush this picture runs the risk of upsetting, traumatising, or even desensitising. I thought about how the picture made me feel, and recognised that for some people the reaction they experienced would be too much to bear. I took the photo down.
Over the last few days I’ve heard and seen lots of debate about those photos. I’ve heard people make the case that if the photo causes people to take action, then it’s worth it. I’ve heard people paint this photo as a turning point in the debate about refugees. I’ve heard people describe the photo as manipulative, crass and misleading. I’ve heard people explain that difficult cases make poor policy, and that the implications of knee-jerk reactions are too risky to contemplate. So far, I haven’t heard anything from anyone who has changed their view as a result of seeing the picture.
My online world is a mostly pleasing echo chamber of people who I approve of. If you lived in my Facebook world you’d be staggered, as I was, that anyone voted Tory, or approved of austerity, or didn’t want to help refugees. On the whole common sense, compassion, thoughtfulness and a willingness to take action to change things are disproportionately represented among my Facebook friends.
“There are people in the world who still believe that the number of minutes they have to wait for a GP appointment are directly correlated to the number of people who immigrate into the UK.”
None of these people needed to see this picture. These people were already taking action: petitions were signed, letters had been sent to MPs, donations were being made to the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, and people were collecting and buying tents, men’s walking boots and other desperately needed essentials. These people did not need to see pictures of an individual human tragedy in order to comprehend the implications of what was happening and to understand our moral duty to other humans.
You could argue that sharing the photo is a chance to reach some of the people who don’t agree that help is needed. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced that will work. There are people in the world who still believe that the number of minutes they have to wait for a GP appointment are directly correlated to the number of people who immigrate into the UK.
These people are remarkably unaffected by facts and evidence. It does not matter how often they are shown the data which proves that immigration is not having the impact that they believe. No amount of explaining the difference between the terms migrant, refugee and illegal immigrant changes the way these terms are misapplied. Rational exposition on how our actions as a nation have led us to this point falls on deaf ears.
These are people who, when they see this photo, don’t see an innocent child who we should have done more for; they see an attempt at cynical manipulation, an attempt to use emotion to drive changes which they are fundamentally opposed to. These people do not need to see pictures of a dead child because they are immune to facts and evidence which challenge their views. No number of dead children will shift them from their position; they have become expert at selecting only the information which makes them feel safe and comfortable. Some of them have shared this picture and still not taken any other action, some of them have shared this picture and still believe that we owe these families nothing.
In a world where photos can travel round the globe at lightning speed and once something is on the internet it is not possible to control it, it’s unlikely that we will stop seeing pictures of dead children any time soon. The best way to limit how many pictures we see is to each commit to taking the actions that we can take to drive positive change, and to use our social media sharing to amplify the voices of those who have ideas, projects and campaigns that will make a difference.
Some of the ways you can contribute to the efforts to help refugees arriving in Europe:
Migrant Offshore Aid Station: moas.eu
Donate to the UNHCR: http://donate.unhcr.org/gbr/general/
Donate to Médecins Sans Frontières, who are rescuing and caring for people crossing the Mediterranean: http://www.msf.org.uk/make-a-donation
Calais Action have produced a map showing drop-off points for donations around the UK: https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=z0IlKDKjh8U0.kynDNxGpqDP4
Sign the petition urging the government to accept more asylum seekers into the UK: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/105991/
Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.