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.

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