Inspector’s Column: The Effect of a Single Photograph

The stream of news does not always catch our attention. You have to know where to turn if you want to avoid all the noise, the mindless and irrelevant stream of nothing, in order to get real news that matter. The twitter feeds, the tabloid websites and all the other sources of junk have established viewpoints as the dominant news vehicle, rather than, say, facts. But every now and then, real news that matter, manage to cut through.

Nilüfer Demir, a turkish photographer, managed to do so earlier this year, as she happened to be the first to discover the body of young Aylan Kurdi, who drowned as the raft he was on capsized near the beaches of Bodrum. Aylan was from Kobane, one of the Syrian towns that has been brutally affected by the terror of the Islamic State. Demir’s picture of Aylan immediately struck a chord among most people who saw it. It was, and still is, very intrusive and heart-breaking, and it appeared to have shifted the view of many of us. Several polls claimed we could spot a clear shift to a more welcoming attitude towards refugees. Politicians from all countries (except a couple of our European neighbours) competed on caring.

Anyone with a heart can only mourn the fate of young Aylan and his family – but this tragic event is also food for thought. While it is good that people react, I cannot help but thinking the whole thing is a failure of mankind on several accounts. Not only the rubbish that is forcing millions to flee from their homes, that goes without saying. But it is also a failure that we need a picture like this to actually start caring. Those who were taken by surprise by Aylan’s fate have missed something, since the hardships of escaping through the Middle East and Europe were well known in our part of the world before. And, likewise, when it comes to the death rates of refugees. Could we not imagine this before? Did we not have any conception of what drowning looks like? For those of us who cannot handle facts and reason, and instead develop our view of the world based on numb impression and routine only, images like this make a real – life-saving – difference.

One may wonder why words and numbers cannot convey this message as strongly, and it is clear that the response to stimuli such facts is helped, tremendously, by image. And I must admit that part of me is surprised that one picture can still cut through in such a fundamental way as Demir’s did. In the “old” media landscape this happened more regularly. Strong images from the Vietnam War helped shape the opinion against it. Dorothea Lange’s iconic photos of the poor in the US during the depression helped raise support for the New Deal. The footage of the concentration camps helps us to forever remember the holocaust. In our modern media landscape, image still has a significant power and is a cornerstone of relevant and rigorous journalism. Nilüfer Demir unwillingly just added one iconic symbol of our time.

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