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

7 minute read

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.”

Front Pages Around the World Memorialize Drowned Syrian Boy Aylan Kurdi

Drowned Migrant Boy Gulf News Front Page
Gulf News
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The National
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The Independent
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Daily Mirror
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The Wall Street Journal
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The Washington Post
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The Times
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The Sun
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La Stampa
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El Universal
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De Standaard
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Irish Examiner
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Jornal de Noticias
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Tampa Bay Times

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.”

These Photos Show the Massive Scale of Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Greece Migrants
Syrian and Afghan refugees warm themselves and dry their clothes around a fire after arriving on a dinghy from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, early on Oct. 7, 2015. Muhammed Muheisen—AP
migrant refugee greece
A migrant who recently arrived across the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey, watching a ferry in the port of Mytilene, Lesbos island, Greece, on Oct. 5, 2015.Zoltan Balogh—EPA
refugees migrants Lesbos Greek islands
An Afghan wades to the shore after arriving in an overloaded rubber dinghy on the coast near Skala Sikaminias, Lesbos island, Greece, Oct. 1, 2015. Filip Singer—EPA
Syrian refugees Lesbos Greece
Syrian refugees are covered with life blankets upon arriving to the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey, on Sept. 28, 2015. Aris Messinis—AFP/Getty Images
migrants refugees Lesbos
Migrants and refugees arrive on Sykamia beach, west of the port of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey, on Sept. 22, 2015. Iakovos Hatzistavrou—AFP/Getty Images
Croatia Migrants
Migrants and refugees board a train by climbing through the windows as they try to avoid a police barrier at the station in Tovarnik, Croatia, on Sept. 20, 2015. Manu Brabo—AP
Croatia Migrants
A Syrian refugee boy cries while he and his family try to board a train at the station in Tovarnik, Croatia, on Sept. 20, 2015.Manu Brabo—AP
migrants hungary serbia border clash
A migrant holds his child during a clash with Hungarian riot police at the Horgos border crossing in Serbia, on Sept. 16, 2015.Sergey Ponomarev—The New York Times/Redux
migrants serbia
Migrants sleep on a highway in front of a barrier at the border with Hungary near the village of Horgos, Serbia, on Sept. 16, 2015. Marko Djurica—Reuters
Hungary Serbia border
A wagon equipped with razor wire is placed at the border between Hungary and Serbia in Roszke, some 10 miles southeast from Budapest, Hungary, Sept. 14, 2015, to close the gap of the temporary border fence at the Horgos-Szeged railway line. Balazs Mohai—EPA
refugees migrants Lesbos
A refugee reacts from exhaustion while swimming towards the shore after a dinghy carrying Syrian and Afghan refugees before reaching the Greek island of Lesbos, on Sept. 13, 2015. Alkis Konstantinidis—Reuters
refugees migrants Hungary
Syrian people sleep inside a greenhouse at a makeshift camp for asylum seekers near Roszke, southern Hungary, on Sept. 13, 2015. Muhammed Muheisen—AP
Hungary Migrants refugees children
Syrian refugee Raed Alabdou, 24, holds his one-month old daughter Roa'a, while he and his wife hide in a field not to be seen by Hungarian policemen, after they crossed the Serbian-Hungarian border near Roszke, southern Hungary, on Sept. 11, 2015. Muhammed Muheisen—AP
refugees migrants macedonia
Migrants and refugees beg Macedonian police to allow passage to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia during a rainstorm, near the Greek village of Idomeni, on Sept. 10, 2015. Yannis Behrakis—Reuters
refugees migrants Morahalom Hungary
Migrants run over a motorway from a collection point that had been set up to transport people to camps in Morahalom, Hungary, on Sept. 9, 2015.Dan Kitwood—Getty Images
syrian refugee migrant hungary
A young Syrian man from Damascus tries to evade the Hungarian police by sneaking through a forest close to the Serbian border in Morahalom, Hungary, on Sept. 8, 2015. Dan Kitwood—Getty Images
refugees migrants Serbia
Migrants cross into Hungary as they walk over railroad tracks at the Serbian border with Hungary in Horgas, Serbia, on Sept. 7, 2015.Dan Kitwood— Getty Images
refugee migrant Lesbos
A refugee from Syria prays after arriving on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos aboard an inflatable dinghy across the Aegean Sea from Turkey, on Sept. 7, 2015. Angelos Tzortzinis—AFP/Getty Images
syrian refugees migrants greek coast guard
A migrant scrambles to climb back aboard a rubber dinghy full of his fellow Syrians as they try to cross from Turkey to the Greek islands on their way to claim asylum in the European Union, late on Sept. 6, 2015.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
syrian refugees migrants greek coast guard
A Syrian migrant aboard a flimsy rubber motorboat hands his one-month-old baby to Greek coast guards, who have arrived to rescue the boat full of migrants from dangerous waters near the border between Greece and Turkey, early on Sept. 7, 2015.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Greece Migrants
A young Syrian boy is wrapped with a thermal blanket as he arrives with others at the coast on a dinghy after crossing from Turkey, at the island of Lesbos, Greece, on Sept. 7, 2015.Petros Giannakouris—AP
Greece Migrants
Refugees and migrants wait to cross the border from the northern Greek village of Idomeni to southern Macedonia, on Sept. 7, 2015. Giannis Papanikos—AP
Migrants walk along rail tracks as they arrive to a collection point in the village of Roszke, Hungary
Migrants walk along rail tracks as they arrive to a collection point in the village of Roszke, Hungary, on Sept. 6, 2015.Marko Djurica—Reuters
migrant refugees train macedonia
Migrant families ride a train from Gevgelija to the Serbian border in Macedonia, on Sept. 4, 2015.Dan Kitwood—Getty Images
Italy Migrants refugees
Migrants crowd the bridge of the Norwegian Siem Pilot ship sailing along the Mediterranean sea, on Sept. 2, 2015. Gregorio Borgia—AP
Aylan Kurdi boy drowned
A Turkish gendarme carries the body of Alan Kurdi, 3, who drowned along with his brother Galip, 5, and their mother, in a failed attempt to sail to the Greek island of Kos, in the coastal town of Bodrum, Turkey, on Sept. 2, 2015.Reuters
Migrant crisis
Dozens of refugee families, mostly from Syria, camped near the Keleti train station in Budapest, Hungary on Sept. 2, 2015.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Migrant crisis
A Syrian migrant bids farewell to the Hungarian volunteers who welcomed him upon his arrival in the European Union in Szeged, Hungary on Aug. 30, 2015.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
refugees migrants Hungarian-Serbian border
A father of a migrants family is arrested by the local police near the village of Roszke on the Hungarian-Serbian border on Aug. 28, 2015.Attila Kisbender—AFP/Getty Images
Syrian migrants cross under a fence as they enter Hungary at the border with Serbia, near Roszke
Syrian migrants cross under a fence as they enter Hungary at the border with Serbia, near Roszke, on Aug. 27, 2015. Bernadett Szabo—Reuters
Hungary border fence migrants refugees
Hungarian soldiers install a wire fence at the border between Hungary and Serbia near Hercegszanto, 115 miles southeast from Budapest, on Aug. 25, 2015. Tamas Soki—EPA
syrian migrant refugee girl greece
A little girl from Syria looks out of a bus as the ferry she arrived in is reflected in the bus window at the port of Piraeus, Greece, on Aug. 25, 2015. Petros Giannakouris—AP
Macedonian police clash with refugees at blocked border
Children cry as migrants waiting on the Greek side of the border break through a cordon of Macedonian special police forces to cross into Macedonia, near the southern city of Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on Aug. 21, 2015.Georgi Licovski—EPA
Calais migrants
Gendarmerie attempt to prevent people from entering the Eurotunnel terminal in Coquelles, Calais, France on July 30, 2015.Rob Stothard—Getty Images
Kos Migrants Greece
Life vests and a deflated dinghy are seen on a beach on the Greek island of Kos, following the arrival of Afghan immigrants, on May 30, 2015.Yannis Behrakis—Reuters
Aylan Kurdi boy drowned
A Turkish gendarme carries the body of Alan Kurdi, 3, who drowned along with his brother Galip, 5, and their mother, in a failed attempt to sail to the Greek island of Kos, in the coastal town of Bodrum, Turkey, on Sept. 2, 2015.Reuters
Members of the Turkish gendarmerie stand near by the washed-up body of a refugee child who drowned during a failed attempt to sail to the Greek island of Kos, at the shore in the coastal town of Bodrum, Turkey, on Sept. 2, 2015. At least 11 Syrian migrants died in boat sank after leaving Turkey for the Greek island of Kos.
Members of the Turkish gendarmerie stand near by the washed-up body of a refugee child who drowned during a failed attempt to sail to the Greek island of Kos, at the shore in the coastal town of Bodrum, Turkey, on Sept. 2, 2015. At least 11 Syrian migrants died in boat sank after leaving Turkey for the Greek island of Kos.Dogan News Agency/EPA

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