The Dead Boy on the Beach – and on Facebook, and Twitter, and Instagram, and…
Written by Thomas Ærvold Bjerre, Associate Professor at Department for the Study of Culture
“Stop posting pictures of dead children!” This demand has popped up on social media within the last week, a reaction fueled in particular by the picture(s) of a dead three-year old Syrian refugee on the beach in Bodrum, Turkey. In one of the pictures he is being carried in the arms of a Turkish officer. In another he is lying face down in the shoreline. These photos are nothing if not heartbreaking. But the underlying question that drives the debate surrounding the publication (and social media sharing) of them is an ethical one. Editors have defended printing the photos, and the common rationale seems to be that photos like these, unbearable and heartbreaking as they might be, are a necessary part of documenting what is actually happening. Or as journalist and photographer Joan Gage argues in Huffington Post, “This is what photographs are for, people! To put a face on suffering and injustice and to motivate us, the viewers, to do something about it.”
Another aspect of the photo of the dead boy relates to the Western representation of refugees and immigrants as Others. This has to be understood in the specific context of the political climate in Europe as well as the larger context of Orientalism. The mass migration currently taking place is often depicted (in words as well as images) in stereotypical ways that rely on a Western understanding of the Other. But the dead boy on the beach in Turkey did not fit that part. He was not in tattered clothes, not a dot in a large crowd of faceless, anonymous refugees. He looked like any three-year old, nicely dressed in blue shorts, red shirt, and sneakers. This is surely also part of the explanation of the powerful reactions to those pictures.
History is rife with examples of debates surrounding controversial pictures. Images of dead soldiers have traditionally been censored by the military. And pictures of dead or wounded civilians have been seen as powerful propaganda—either to support a war (i.e. Saddam Hussein gassing Iraqi Kurds or the Assad regime dropping barrel bombs on Syrian civilians) or to protest it (i.e. Nick Ut’s infamous photo of the Vietnamese “napalm girl” or the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse pictures).
History is rife with examples of debates surrounding controversial pictures. Here, Nick Ut is holding his classic Vietnam photograph, "Napalm Girl." Photo: VICE Media LLC
But do pictures really have the power to change the world? This is one of the central questions in Susan Sontag’s works On Photography (1977) and Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). Here she argues that in order for photographs to be truly powerful, to make us change our political view, they must not only portray or represent but also, in a sense, channel affect into the viewer. But the risk, Sontag warns, is that in a world “hyper-saturated with images, those that should matter have a diminishing effect” (Regarding 105). We become overwhelmed and numb.
With the advent of social media, the level of visual hyper-saturation has increased tenfold since Sontag wrote her essay. Sontag argued for narrative or words as a necessary companion to images. Again, given today’s social media landscape, this is an interesting thought. Traditionally, the controversial photos mentioned above were published in newspapers and magazines, framed by writing that contextualized the shocking images. When people share pictures of the dead boy on the beach, they do so most likely out of frustration, to alert people in their social media networks, to call for action. But the risk of being saturated increases dramatically, when people are exposed to horrible images dozens of times as they scroll through their feed. No editor is there to warn of graphic or disturbing images. They float freely among kittens, celebrities, and whatever else people have in their feed. One result is that some people turn away, disengage.
In the case of the particular photo of the dead boy on the beach in Bodrum, the media followed up on the story. His name was Aylan Kurdi. His five-year old brother Kalip and his mother Rihan also drowned trying to reach the Greek island of Kos. Their bodies were found further up the beach in Bodrum.