Responding to Aylan Kurdi: Can a Single Photograph Really Change History?

The refugee crisis is not new, but it was the photographs of drowned three-year-old Syrian Aylan Kurdi, face-down in the sand of a Turkish beach with his palms upturned, that brought the world to attention. On 3 September 2015, newspapers around the globe ran the image on the front page. Most chose a frame in which the boy’s lifeless body is cradled in the arms of a Turkish officer, though a few — notably Britain’s The Independent — ran the arguably more visceral original.

We’re often told that the ‘digital revolution’ has shortened attention spans, altering the ways we engage with unfolding events — that perhaps expressing one’s dismay in a Tweet is now sufficient to assuage any greater responsibility for action. But in this case, the response came thick and fast. Research conducted by The Visual Social Media Lab at Sheffield University suggests that the image was seen by twenty million people in the first twelve hours, racking up more than 53,000 tweets per hour, the majority of which opted for the descriptor ‘refugee’ over the more politically loaded term ‘migrant’ (see also Google’s coverage here). Politicians lined up to publicly announce how moving they had found the photograph, and charities and NGOs saw record increases in donations. The Migrant Offshore Aid Station recorded a fifteen-fold increase in donations within 24 hours, while the Charities Aid Foundation found that fully one-third of Britons that made donations cited the publication of the photographs as their primary reason for doing so. And finally, honouring what seems to have become a journalistic tradition when responding to shocking news images, Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown likened the image’s impact to that of Nick Ut’s iconic ‘Napalm Girl’, the ‘single picture [that] turned American public opinion against that terrible [Vietnam] war’

As a photographer, I find the question of how photographs achieve political effects an inherently interesting one, and the huge impact of the publication of the Aylan Kurdi photographs makes that question all the more urgent. But I want to focus here on one thing: the Vietnam analogy. 

Historical analogies are often used to try and make sense of unexpected and often ephemeral events, and when it comes to shocking news photographs, the Vietnam War seems to be the analogy of choice. There are good reasons for this. Unfettered images — both stills and video — were pivotal in forcing a US withdrawal from Vietnam, and as I’ve written elsewhere, this experience went on to profoundly reshape media-military relations in subsequent wars. But if we’re going to use historical analogies to explain contemporaneous events then we need to be sure we’ve got the history right, and in this case I think there are problems with the assumption that a single photograph is capable of changing the course of history. 

Take arguably the two most iconic images to have emerged from the Vietnam War: Eddie Adams’ ‘Saigon Execution’ and Nick Ut’s ‘Napalm Girl’. 

Adams’ image, taken in 1968 at the height of the Tet Offensive, shows the street execution of Nguyen Van Lem, a member of the National Liberation Front (or Viet Cong). It’s a brutal image, and the timing — capturing the exact moment of impact — is both remarkable and gruesome in equal measure. But the notoriety of the photograph cannot be explained solely by what it shows. In fact, it wasn’t the first time such an event had been captured on camera (see Sturken 1997, 93). But while its earlier rivals were seen as anomalous and were rejected for publication, Adams’ shot — captured when it was — clearly held currency. Why? It emerged at a time when the US military were set on projecting a narrative of clean and surgical progress, with General Westmoreland (then commander of US forces in Vietnam) having declared only three months earlier that ‘success lies within our grasp’. Although it was actually a major military setback for the Viet Cong, the Tet Offensive, which saw the eruption of an estimated 67,000 Viet Cong troops across the cities of the South, laid waste to this claim, and it was Eddie Adams’ photograph — an image of lawless anarchy — that crystallised this for an American audience. 

A similar scenario plays out for Nick Ut’s ‘Napalm Girl’, to which Alibhai-Brown compared the Aylan Kurdi photographs. In an effort to disguise the grisly reality of the internecine guerrilla war taking place in Vietnam, the terminology used by US officials began to change. The vocabulary of killing became suffused with terms like ‘neutralising targets’, ‘inflicting casualties’ and ‘pacification’. It was against this backdrop that in 1972 the image of a horribly burned Kim Phuc fleeing a napalm strike ran in newspapers around the world. The image itself is without doubt a shocking one, but again the currency of the photograph drew on the sheer dissonance it revealed between the military’s preferred narrative and the ground reality. 

The key point here is that in both cases the ‘power’ of the photograph stems from an interaction with ideas and discourses that already existed to some extent in the popular imagination. A number of theorists, whom we might label social constructivists, have made this argument: John Tagg, Umberto Eco, Victor Burgin. But it was perhaps Alan Sekula that put it most succinctly when he claimed that a photograph needed to be embedded in a ‘concrete discourse’ in order to produce a ‘clear semantic outcome’ (Sekula 1982, 91). In other words, when it comes to making sense of why certain images wield such power, the context into which a photograph emerges is just as important as the contents of the photograph itself. In the case of the Vietnam photographs discussed, their role, it seems, was to ratify and make vivid something which ultimately people already knew, and not to plant that seed in the first place. 

So where does this leave our understanding of the Aylan Kurdi images? Can it really be claimed that before seeing them we did not have some grasp on the extent of the tragedy in the Mediterranean, and that it does not discriminate by age? Was it simply seeing the images that prompted such an astonishing response? I would suggest not, and relatedly, one might also fairly ask whether we have any greater idea now, having seen the photographs, or whether they simply created a moment of public outcry that disappeared as quickly as it arose. 

I can’t fully explain why the Aylan Kurdi photographs had such a huge effect, but I think there’s a clue in the language used to describe the crisis as it continues to unfold. Our collective apprehension of the refugee crisis has become plagued with conflicting vocabularies, of refugees versus ‘economic migrants’, that seek to differentiate among those fleeing their homes, empathising with some while criminalising others. Perhaps only an image of such indisputable innocence had the capacity to cut across these divisions and force a widespread recognition, however short-lived, of a tragedy that is explicitly human. 

The urge to proclaim single images as defining historical turning points seems to be a strong one, but it’s one we should be wary of. The statistics on the impact of the Aylan Kurdi photographs are impressive, but the idea that it was the images alone that achieved this disguises a more complicated relationship with a discourse of which they are now a key part. A single shocking picture may be a catalyst, but it never does its work in a vacuum.


Jaffna: Sri Lanka’s Northern Capital

Anuradhapura railway station. Attempting to make idle talk, the man behind me offers up his recommendation for which class of travel I should choose for the journey to Colombo. ‘I’m headed to Jaffna’ I say, as his eyes widen with surprise — a reaction common in all those to whom I’ve sketched out my itinerary. ‘This is the boundary’, he says, ‘everything north — landscape, culture, religion — is different’.

At Vavuniya, 50km north of Anuradhapura, the train empties out, and from here onwards the ride to Jaffna is bumpy. The carriage lurches suddenly to one side, and then falls into an up-and-down rhythm so strong that I’m lifted clean off my seat on more than one occasion. As the train heads into Elephant Pass, the gateway to the Jaffna Peninsula and the site of bitter contestation during Sri Lanka’s civil war, I begin to see what the man at Anuradhapura was talking about. The land flattens out, beaten down by the intensity of the sun: to the left, what are either disused rice paddies or salt pans; to the right, arid scrubland that recedes into the horizon. And then the weather flips. Within a matter of minutes the sky darkens, unleashing a deluge of rain so fierce that we frantically rush to latch down the windows in order to stem the flow of water splashing onto the seats. Meteorologically, it seems, this is a land of extremes. As the train rattles into the Jaffna Peninsula itself, the rich and intense redness of tilled farmland shouts at your eyes, a sharp contrast to the muted browns and vibrant greens of its southern counterpart. By the time the train pulls into the platform the evening is in full swing, and so I head straight to the guest house to settle in for the night. As the sun drifts below the skyline, the streets are quiet, interrupted only by crowing birds and, a little after 1am, a chorus of howling dogs. Docile during the heat of the day, the night it seems is theirs — and I’m thankful for having pocketed the earplugs on my flight.

In 2014, Sri Lanka welcomed more than 1,500,000 tourists to its shores — a more than three-fold increase since the civil war came to a bloody end in 2009. Stories of idyllic coves and golden sunsets washing over white sands draw tourists to the beaches of the South in droves. And while many now reach the historic ancient city of Anuradhapura, few venture up to the country’s northernmost tip. Jaffna was for many years Sri Lanka’s second city, and more recently the symbolic capital of a hoped-for independent Tamil state. But it doesn’t appear on many tourist itineraries. 

The following morning, under the light of day, the city makes its first impression. Full of shops, it’s a busy and furiously mercantile place with a dense commercial centre and a quieter, often leafy, periphery. And it’s one, I’m told, that is ideally suited to exploration by bike, so I borrow a rickety set of wheels and head out. 

At the epicentre of Jaffna’s bustling heart stands the ‘New Market Complex’, a two-storey termite mound of shopping clad in luminous ochre. Inside, two shaded courtyards offer respite from the frenetic street, opening at one end onto one of the city’s many food markets and at the other onto the bus station. Vegetables of all kinds are neatly stacked on hessian sacks spread across the concrete floor, a patchwork as colourful as it is appetising. Dark bricks of jaggery are stacked atop one another, flanked by slabs of peanut brittle and other sweets; oils of different colours glow in plastic bottles like prisms, ignited by the sunlight that spears through the gaps in the roof. 

Moving away from the centre, Jaffna begins to relax. Beach Road, southeast of the centre, is home to many of the city’s fishermen who, seeking respite from the early afternoon sun, were hunched over their nets in any and all available shade. It’s an area that I imagine to be a hive of activity in the early morning as fresh fish are brought in, bartered over, and shipped off across the city and beyond. But for now it is quiet, sedated by the heat.

A little further on, opposite the Portuguese-built Fort and the new police headquarters (still under construction at the time of writing), a disassembled merry-go-round stands alone in a field, the remnants of a touring funfair that had visited the week before. The carriages — hand-painted deer and horses — and a standalone ticket booth are all that recognisably remain, but as Hassan — who travels to fairs and festivals across the country, and whom I met at his stall on Main Street — would later tell me, it had drawn quite a crowd.

Edging further along the road that skirts between the city and the lagoon, I arrive at a meat market on the westernmost end of Navalar Road. The butchers wave me over, to the warm and sustained shake of a hand matted in blood. Having exchanged the usual pleasantries, the conversation runs dry — the fault of my own linguistic shortcomings — and so I wander on to explore the rest of the market.

As I make for the exit, two young men ask for a photograph, a request I’m only too happy to oblige, and one that (as so often seems to happen in South Asia) unleashes a tide of similar requests, to my obvious gratification. 

Wary of the steadily rising temperature and my proven susceptibility to heatstroke, I head back towards the guest house, only to find myself distracted by a football tournament taking place on the playing fields opposite Jaffna Central College. 

I hover timidly by the gate as the teams march out under the midday sun, meeting at the centre circle before splitting off into their respective halves. Alarmingly, only about a third of the players are kitted out with boots, the others playing barefoot. But after kickoff, it becomes immediately clear that this added danger in no way affects their enthusiasm for the game. As the players fight every challenge to the last — so much so that a penalty is given, and duly put away, only moments into the game — I’m enthralled and end up watching almost the entire first half. Propped against a wall that runs the perimeter of the field, my attention is only briefly called away by the cheers that follow every kick from the students that have lined the upper storeys of the school buildings that overlook the pitch.

All of this is to say that Jaffna is a living, breathing city — it’s bustling, busy and full of people doing things other than catering to the whims of passing tourists (of which there are admittedly very few). From my arrival at the train station — to relative, perhaps slightly bemused indifference rather than the usual cacophony of competing tuk tuk drivers — I’ve felt like a fly on the wall, privy to something genuine. And in a country that has geared itself so heavily towards tourism in recent years, that’s a precious thing.

With that said, it would be a dereliction of duty to write about Jaffna in a way that sidesteps its politics and history. But to employ the journalistic cliche that this is a town ‘just emerging from three decades of brutal war’ also isn’t quite right. The town has been under more or less steady government control since 1995 (though it was very nearly recaptured by the LTTE in 2000). The physical scars of war remain everywhere in plain sight. Derelict structures, roofless houses and pock marked walls are so frequently seen that after a couple of days they almost become normal. And this, of course, is only the most obvious of the manifold ways in which conflicts becomes so indelibly seared in both the environments and people that experience them.

During the week I spent in Jaffna I sought out conversations — mostly small talk over dal and roti or kottu sloshed across a banana leaf in Jaffna’s numerous ‘hotels’. But I avoided bringing up the conflict, a small act of deference to what is surely a difficult memory, and one that for many people is not yet in the past. Yet it was not unspoken.

I would be asked how I was finding my visit to Sri Lanka, to which I would reply positively, noting that while I had visited the country before, it was my first time in Jaffna. Then on several occasions came a rejoinder in a quietened voice: ‘ten years ago, it was very different’, or words to that effect. Little more would be said on the topic, but this small but firm assertion gave me pause for thought. I understood it as a call for the suffering endured to be acknowledged, to count as part of the fabric of the city as it is perceived from the outside. For its difficult history not to be erased amid the florid descriptions of its friendly and hospitable inhabitants that will no doubt fill the columns of guidebooks as Jaffna opens up to a greater inflow of tourists.

Nevertheless, my impression of Jaffna is one of quiet optimism: a place that is on the up, and gradually adjusting to a new political reality. Although many blank plots of land remain, reconstruction is underway. The Jaffna Public Library, which amassed a collection of over 97,000 books and documents, including many on Sri Lanka’s political history, was set on fire and destroyed amid mob violence in 1981, making it one of the most appalling acts of cultural desecration in modern history. But today it is fully rebuilt and restocked (though admittedly missing many items from its original catalogue, which are irreplaceable) and teeming with students and readers alike. A hopeful sign for a city that deserves a brighter and more dignified future than its recent past.

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