I have been made aware that a Fairfax journalist singled me out in an article yesterday, as an example of a person who is not sharing/continuing to view again and again pictures of a dead 3-year-old human being named Aylan Kurdi. Some readers felt the writer implied I was an example of someone ‘turning away’ and ‘avoiding the horror’ of Syria and the plight of refugees like Aylan (to quote the article), and having read it, I think that interpretation is easy to make. I believe it’s worth noting there is more to the conversation and the complex ethics here than simply sharing certain images or ‘turning away’.
As someone who was in Syrian refugee camps just 3 months ago, and as a long time child rights advocate I believe in preserving the dignity of all children, in all situations, including the dignity of refugees, and that extends to the ethics of photographing and publishing images of children. That is my personal choice – not to share graphic, identifiable images of the dead who by nature cannot have consented, regardless of nationality – whether they are Australian or Syrian. I also speak out against the use of identifiable images of children taken and published without the consent or knowledge of those children or their parents or guardians, regardless of who those children are. Many advocates working in child rights or child protection take a similar view. News journalists sometimes have a different view regarding what images and footage are appropriate, ethical or in the public interest, and also have reasons for that view. In this case various news agencies have used different shots with varying degrees of identifiability and graphic detail depending on their standards and position. Some choices do not clearly show the face of the deceased, for example. (In fact, some debates on social media about the use of the images are not even about the same images. There is a selection being circulated.)
Some arguments for using particular images are very good. The conflict in Syria, which is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world but has been under-reported in mainstream journalism in terms of the human cost, provides a difficult case in point. What does it take for real change to occur? A shocking series of images of the innocent dead, of which there are far too many? Perhaps. There is hope, as some in political power talk of change and action, and yet other politicians have so far used the very same images to justify existing policies, rather than seeing them as a call for significant change.
As a parent of a young child I also wish to protect my own child from seeing graphic and repeated images of death until she is older. This is something it is increasingly difficult to do while we circulate, again and again, in the news and on our own social media feeds the shooting deaths on TV of journalists, as happened just last week in Virginia with the murders of Alison Parker and Adam Ward, or while we publish front page images and circulate videos of ISIS beheadings, often against the explicit wishes of the families of those victims, as in the case of murdered journalist James Foley.
Context matters and context is sometimes lost when circulating an image. On social media in particular, images are often circulated without the story to go with them. Already there are memes of Aylan’s lifeless body. Some of these include slogans, logos or manipulations of his body. This extensive social media use is now well beyond the initial news media reporting. Aylan has no choice in how his death or body are portrayed, and neither does his family, including his aunt who is reportedly ‘asking people to stop using [the] drowning photo’ as she wants the ‘world to remember him smiling ‘. His bereaved father now hopes – not without reason – that the international attention sparked by the images may finally result in actual, substantial change. Abdullah Kurdi has seen images of his dead son on every newspaper, has been swamped with media attention, and has been very brave in his response. He lost his sons Aylan, 3, Galip, 5, and his wife Rehan in the same tragic incident. Outside the morgue where the bodies of his family are held, he reportedly said, “We want the world’s attention on us, so that they can prevent the same from happening to others. Let this be the last,” according to the Reuters news agency. This is something akin to consent after the fact, at least. Sadly, he also told mourners that he blames himself for their deaths. What an impossible weight to bear.
Yes, let this be the last. Please.
Aylan was a person, not only a body on the beach. I share his story widely on social media with images of him as a living child, and yes, like most I have seen the images of his death in the news multiple times. Choosing not to share images of his body on social media is not the same as ‘turning away’. I have looked at the issues of refugee children in sometimes confronting ways – standing before them, acknowledging them, hearing their stories, and offering my voice as a journalist and UNICEF’s National Ambassador for Child Survival to help their voices be heard and to try to bring about better policy and wider understanding. I have been with Syrian refugees in one camp while another nearby burned down, killing children and adults. I have seen death. I have seen the dying. I have spoken to Syrian child brides and victims of rape used as a tool of war and reported on those stories – something I will continue to do. The way to help Syrians and other refugees escaping conflict is not only by clicking ‘share’ on an image of their lifeless bodies. People who refuse to do so should not be dismissed as ‘avoiding the horror’. Some of them may in fact be a great deal closer to it.
If you are interested in how to help refugee children like Aylan you can go to the appeal at unicef.org.aumoss or donate to other reputable aid agencies, and write to your local member asking for change.
Regardless of whether we personally agree with or participate in the circulation of particular images of dead refugees, and regardless of our thoughts on the use of trigger warnings, we must agree that being shocked by these distressing images is NOT enough.
Shock must be matched by action.
To donate to UNICEF’s Syria Appeal, click here.
* Photograph, above, taken my photojournalist Alessio Romenzi for UNICEF Australia.