A few days ago I was harangued by a tweeter and called an idiot. It’s happened before but we followed each other so I thought it worth engaging in a dialogue but each of her responses exploded with anger and so I shrugged my shoulders and retired to bed.
The reason for her fury was I published a picture of the little three-year old Alan Kurdi dead on a Turkish beach and I had done so without the permission of the child’s mother.
News of the family’s fate was only emerging so I didn’t know at the time that his mother and brother also drowned but his father survived.
I could see where my angry tweeter was coming from – a young mother herself she was clearly heartbroken by the image and would have hated to see her own child exposed in such a way. I imagine she felt it was exploitation of the child though she did not say this.
It seemed to me her understandable feelings of horror and outrage were just a little misplaced. This was no school play where little children are protected from being photographed by other adults unless permission is given by a parent. Here, on the Turkish beach, where so many others were washed up dead, was a striking image of an innocent child, a victim of war – of the instability and violence that comes from trying to live a normal life under impossible circumstances. This child’s parents risked everything to get him to a better, safer life in war-free Europe.
He was not the first wee child to die in a desperate rush to leave bombing, rapes, beheadings and sanctions behind. He was not the first wee child to be drowned. Nor was he the first wee child to be washed up dead on a beach. He was a migrant. That fate is not uncommon amongst migrants. In fact it so common the numbers rarely register with us when we read them in newspapers or hear them on the news – if we bother to take notice of them at all. Numbers are fairly meaningless to us. The bigger the number the more meaningless it becomes. We cannot compute numbers into little children. It’s too abstract a concept.
But this picture – this picture clearly struck a chord with people across the world. This picture illustrated what this ‘migrant crisis’ is all about. It is about people escaping the sort of life we cannot imagine in the desperate hope of finding something better, of finding security to develop as human beings – normality.
For someone of my vintage the immediate comparison was the picture from the Vietnam war of the little girl, Kim Phúc, who had been napalmed and was running naked down a street. No-one asked her mum for permission to use it, and like Alan’s photograph it was quickly circulated across the globe. Of course we had heard about the Americans dropping napalm bombs but stuff happens. Then we saw this terribly distressed girl and realised the consequences of American politicians and generals signing off orders to drop napalm on combatants and their farms. Kim was a combatant – goodness is that what these men and women safely cocooned thousands of miles away consider a combatant? – justified incidental collateral damage?
With Kim’s photograph her fellow-countrymen women and children stopped being just numbers in a long list of numbers that conceals the reality of victims – of human beings like us being treated so appallingly. Public opinion was outraged and attitudes hardened towards the US policy. Once ordinary citizens have begun to sit up and take notice of government actions it is more difficult for bad things to happen.
Images not words can be harbingers of change. If you don’t think so then why is it companies spend so much perfecting the right image to symbolize their businesses? We are moved by images. We respond to images. Little Alan’s death is a tragedy, as is his brother’s and his mother’s. We feel for his father. Should the photographer had tracked down his father and asked his permission to use the photograph that has become iconic of the refugee crisis? I don’t think so. Call me an idiot for suggesting little Alan has become the property of us all. The randomness of the image has been distilled to represent the callous disregard of too many government leaders who like David Cameron denigrated desperate refugees as sub-human – swarms of insects – to his everlasting shame and the shame of all those contemptible MPs who a few short weeks ago insisted we keep little children like Alan away from the United Kingdom. Some have undergone an epiphany with Labour’s leadership contenders falling over each other to offer sanctuary to a migrant refugee. The British press, too, have softened the hard-line, stunned into altering the terminology of consistently calling them migrants to occasional reference to refugees. As is becoming increasingly the norm the mainstream media drags its heels behind public opinion on social media. Following clear signals from the country that this nasty little Englander attitude towards foreigners shown by the media and the government was so lamentably out of tune with public opinion there has been a reluctant gritting of teeth and altering the message. Days ago the BBC told listeners the Prime Minister was ENABLED to act, to alter his policy on migrants – or did they say refugees? because of the picture of Alan. Typical BBC, ever propagandising for the government – Cameron wasn’t ENABLED he was shamed into shifting his position. Now that comment was arguable idiotic.
PS My angry tweeter stopped following me. And I her. Maybe we should exchange pictures instead.