TIME Behind the Photos

What the Image of Aylan Kurdi Says About the Power of Photography

Photo editors and experts discuss their decision to publish an image that has shocked the world

The heartbreaking photograph of a dead 3-year-old boy, whose body washed up in Turkey on Sept. 2, has already had an impact on policy, with the U.K. agreeing on Friday to take thousands more refugees. The image itself also marks important new ground, photography experts tell TIME.

Aylan Kurdi and his 5-year-old brother, Galip drowned after their overloaded boat capsized off of the coast of Turkey. Aylan’s body was discovered on one of Turkey’s beaches in the Bodrum Peninsula. Images of the ghastly find, photographed by Nilufer Demir from Turkey’s Dogan News Agency, were shared on social media and on the front pages of newspapers around the world, particularly in the U.K. and in Europe. As they spread, and as individuals and organizations faced the decision of whether and how to publish them, those pictures have ignited a new kind of conversation about the crisis.

“The reason we’re talking about this photograph is not because it’s been taken or not because it’s been circulated, but it’s because it’s been published by mainstream media,” says Hugh Pinney, vice president at Getty Images, a distributor of news images. “And the reason we’re talking about it after it’s been published is because it breaks a social taboo that has been in place in the press for decades: a picture of a dead child is one of the golden rules of what you never published.”

The last time a photograph of a dead child was widely published was in July of 2014 when New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks captured the mangled bodies of four Palestinian youths killed in an Israeli airstrike on a beach in Gaza. What is unique about this case, however, is that many news outlets’ decisions to publish the images followed a public outcry on social media. “We got to this point because individuals have had the balls to publish the pictures themselves on social media,” says Pinney. “I think that gave the mainstream media the courage and the conviction to publish this picture.”

In some ways, the power of the picture can be explained by its minimalism. “It’s a simple photograph that deals with an essential truth,” says Dimitri Beck, the editor of the photojournalism magazine Polka in France. “It’s not a sophisticated image, even in its framing, but the message is clear and direct: a kid has died and he’s being picked up like a washed-up piece of wood on the beach. There’s nothing more violent.”

Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director, was one of the first to draw attention to the photograph on Twitter and Facebook. “It’s, sadly, a very well-composed image showing a little toddler that we can all identify with, with his little sneakers and shorts on,” he tells TIME. “I think for a lot of the public, their first reaction is: ‘This could have been my child.’”

Bouckaert argues that the child’s ethnicity played a role in the image’s impact. “This is a child that looks a lot like an European child,” he says. “The week before, dozens of African kids washed up on the beaches of Libya and were photographed and it didn’t have the same impact. There is some ethnocentrism [in the] reaction to this image, certainly.”

The photograph appeared on the cover of The Independent in the U.K., among other titles, and in Le Monde, the only French newspaper to publish the photograph on Thursday. “I’m convinced that until you’ve shown this photograph, you haven’t shown the reality of this crisis,” says Nicolas Jimenez, director of photography at Le Monde. “We’d written about it in the past, but we hadn’t shown it in such a hard way. I feel that to show like this is an important step.”

Of course, Jimenez adds, the decision to publish such a graphic image on the newspaper’s front page was a hard one to make.

“I don’t think I ever got so many calls from newspapers editors and photo editors than I did on that day,” confirms Bouckaert, who works closely with media organizations in their coverage of humanitarian crises. “They all really grappled with the decision of whether or not to use this image. At the end of the day almost all of them did. I think that when we have this discussion time and time again, it always comes down to: ‘This is an image people have to see. This is an image that can galvanize attention around a crisis that has been ignored for too long.’”

For Getty’s Pinney, the image gave photo editors a way to humanize a crisis that had, so far, been illustrated by crowded boats and border points. “I think it’s very brave, particularly on this story, because it’s very easy to forget that this story is rooted in conflict,” he says. “It’s just seen as a journey, as a migration of people from point A to point B. This picture marks a watershed in this story, when finally people are starting to realize that this is about real people and about the fact that people will risk everything — the lives of their children — to cross open waters.”

David Levi Strauss, the cultural critic and poet, believes the image will live on in history. “It is one of those images that seems to arise from out of the collective unconscious,” he tells TIME. “Comparisons have already been made to Nick Ut’s image of a young Vietnamese girl running naked from a napalm attack, which is credited with helping to shift world public opinion against the war in Vietnam. One also cannot help but compare it to the image of Michael Brown’s body, lying face down in the street for hours, which fueled uprisings against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, last year and ignited the Black Lives Matter movement. The image of the death of Aylan Kurdi is a simple image, really, but it will not go away for a very long time.”

Bouckaert hopes Levi Strauss is right. “My hope is that this image will not just shock us but it will push us to take a personal commitment to try to stop these senseless deaths in the Mediterranean. If it accomplishes that, it will be an image that has contributed a lot to the world.”

Pierre Terdjman, a French photojournalist and the father of a 2-year-old boy, agrees. “This photograph is not more important than the hundreds of other documents that photographers have made about these refugees and these victims, and it’s sad to see that it had to be shared around Twitter by thousands of people for it to attract this kind of attention.”

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