Today is 3rd of September 2015, and by this time everyone has seen the photograph of a Syrian child washed up on a European beach. This little body dressed with a red shirt and blue pants, with the face on the sand like a stranded whale, has become the icon of the “migrant crisis”, now finally understood as it is -“refugees”, human beings escaping war, violence and poverty.
The photo has become viral, massively shared on social media. It’s not even the first photograph of a dead refugee child that has circulated these days, but this has inflamed people, who has suddenly become the most compassionate with the Syrian population. Everyone, including politicians from parties that have participated or supported war in Syria and have reduced the asylum rate, claim against this barbarity.* Why? Why, if we already know that thousands of people are dying in the Mediterranean sea, if we have seen photographs of people literally floating and drowning, if we have read that hundreds are dying suffocated in trucks -why this photo inflames our conscience?
Some say that it is an image, and therefore is worth a thousand words -seeing would not have the same power to move as imagining. Others, that we feel appealed by this photograph because we, Europeans, can identify with the child, whose skin is not dark and is dressed with Western clothes. Both arguments might be right, but they are both based on the same principle: taking the photograph as a fact, a brutal fact that cannot be denied. In this regard, what we are judging is the fact that this child has died washed up in the sea -and not the photograph. Even when the debate goes around the photograph itself and discusses the convenience to publish it, the question is whether it is ethical or not to share photographs of a dead child. Again, we discuss the fact, not the photograph.
The fact is terrible and should not have happened, but we knew it. We did not know him, but we knew, because we have read it, that kids are dying. We should not need a photograph to tell us this. In fact, photographs, as everyone knows, are misleading. As Susan Sontag brilliantly put it in her Regarding the Pain of Others, “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain”. Photographs alone do not tell stories, do not state facts. Where many cannot help but feel compassion, empathy or anger, others have seen “greedy” parents.
I always try to escape the “reality trap” when dealing with photographs -that is, whether they show reality or are just a construction/manipulation- and focus on what the photographs do. But photographs of catastrophes and dramas challenge me because they depict terrible things, and of course I focus on the thing -the IMPORTANT thing.
But we also have to make the effort to go beyond that and to try to understand how photography has mobilized people to such a degree if we want to understand our own culture. I think that this photograph has become an icon because social media users have started to share it. It has been this photograph, but it could have been any other photograph appearing at the right moment. As image the photo is impressive, but its aesthetic qualities alone cannot account for the popularity of the picture. Neither can the identity of the child, whose story has only been revealed by newspapers after the photograph has become viral. And this photograph has become viral because some users have started to share it together with compassionate messages of indignation, and the rest of us have agreed with them. Sharing the photograph has become our way to show our support for the refugees, a call to political parties to accept more refugees – our means to express our attitudes towards the problem. Sharing the photograph does not help to solve the problem of refugees, but the messages that accompany it and the repetition of the image in the context of denounce do help to create a collective imaginary.
Photography is not powerful because of what it shows, but for the multiple, collective ways in which it can be used.
*Cristina Cifuentes is currently the president of the Region of Madrid, and belongs to the conservative party Partido Popular. I take this as an example because I know better Spanish politics, but I guess it sadly applies for other countries too.