by Jess Howard
Last year, I wrote an article on what a photograph of a drowned Syrian toddler’s body being lifted from a beach in Turkey could tell us about the Syrian civil war. About how the common misconception that refugees are coming to western countries in order to receive benefits and take money from our governments was entirely incorrect, and how these photographs show us the risks these people are taking just to survive.
Aylan Kurdi, along with his brother Galip, mother Rihan and father Abdullah, were travelling from Syria to the Greek Island of Kos. Their goal was to eventually travel to Vancouver in Canada, where Abdullah’s sister Teema had lived for a number of years. However, during their journey to Kos the boat in which they were travelling capsized, and the two young boys and their mother subsequently drowned.
Unquestionably, the photo of three year old Alyan’s body became a symbol of the terrifying circumstances the people of Syria are enduring as a result of the ongoing conflict. The country has been in a state of Civil war for the past four and a half years, with an estimated 250,000 people dying and an additional 11 million Syrians being forced to leave their homes. The conflict began in 2011 when pro-democracy protesters, rallying in response to the torture and death of a number of Syrian teenagers, were killed when security opened fire on their protest.
The role that Aylan’s photograph played in the conviction of these two men allows us to question why the image had such a significant effect and caused such a reaction, and how images of war and suffering influence people through the media.
At approximately 9:30 this morning it was announced on news websites that two men had been convicted and subsequently been given a prison sentence for the killing of Alyan and his family. Mufawaka Alabash and Asem Alfrhad were found guilty of human trafficking, after attempting to smuggle refugees out of Syria, but were found not guilty of directly causing the family’s death as a result of negligence. The pair have since been sentenced to 4 years and 2 months in prison each.
The role that Aylan’s photograph played in the conviction of these two men allows us to question why the image had such a significant effect and caused such a reaction, and how images of war and suffering influence people through the media. Would the two men have been convicted if the image hadn’t gone viral across the internet? Or if the photograph was of his mother’s body washed up on the beach instead of Alyan’s, who was only 3 years old at the time? Was it the fact that it was a child whose body was dragged from the ocean that was significant?
Furthermore, we have to ask why it was a photograph of a body being washed up onto shore that caused such a reaction. We have been influenced by images of war and suffering by the media for decades. Surely, if it was the photographs themselves that influenced our perspectives on the suffering of others, an image of day to day life in war torn Syria would have been just as effective. This just shows how the media influence us by controlling what we see to such a minute degree, and that they are able to use emotive techniques such as the deaths of young children to affect change.
It is often easy to forget the influence that the visual arts have on the media. Some people do not connect photography as an art form to photography as a means of reporting the news, even they essentially involve the same skills and techniques. Regardless, the front page image of the young boy was a key tool in ensuring that the two men responsible for his death, and many others, were found, convicted and sent to prison.