Any photo of any child makes us think of our own, or the child we once were. When the photos show children suffering or lost, we quiver with a grief that feels personal.
That sensation can trigger a response in the heart, a sudden attention to a faraway issue that was abstract and unending, too many words, too often the same. When the photo goes viral, millions of hearts can be touched. People whose hearts are touched talk about it, even in high places. Changed hearts can change minds and ultimately policy and history.
On Wednesday the world saw images of a Syrian refugee, three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach, as his family fled the civil war. He lay there face down as if sleeping, the surf stroking his face. He wore blue pants, a red T-shirt and gray sneakers with Velcro tabs. A second image shows a police officer lifting Kurdi's limp body from the sand.
The photos circled the world in seconds. Many Twitter postings were tagged in Turkish #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik, or “Flotsam of Humanity.”
Rick Shaw, director of Pictures of the Year International, which researches and disseminates iconic photos of social issues, said Thursday: “This image will probably change public opinion. It reaches in and grabs your heart and pulls it out.” Like other iconic photos, he said, it focuses on the most vulnerable among us. Looking at it, he thought of his own son, now 22. At three years old, his boy Rossley was “zipping around the cul-de-sac on a razor scooter.”
He compared it to the best-remembered photo of the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, which destroyed a child care center. Shot by aspiring photojournalist Charles Porter, it shows a firefighter in a red helmet tenderly carrying the bloodied body of a toddler in pink socks, one year and a day old.
It won the Pulitzer Prize but its global familiarity dismayed the baby’s 23-year-old single mother, Aren Almon-Kok, who recently told a reporter she was shocked to see it the day after the tragedy in the newspaper: “For some reason I thought I would know if my daughter was going to be on the front page.” It still grieves her “to see Baylee dead everywhere every day.”
Pictures of dead or suffering children do become iconic, in ways that both hurt and help. On Wednesday Peter Bouckaert, a director at Human Rights Watch, wrote a blog post explaining why he chose to Tweet the image of the dead Syrian boy who had been on a boat aiming for a Greek Island: “What struck me the most were his little sneakers, certainly lovingly put on by his parents that morning as they dressed him for their dangerous journey. … Staring at the image, I couldn’t help imagine that it was one of my own sons lying there drowned on the beach.”
Two days after the pictures went public, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced his nation would take in thousands more Syrian refugees. It’s too early to know the full impact of the images, which 30 years ago would have shocked newspaper readers over their morning coffee.
Now they hit us like hundreds of others we see each day on all our media platforms. Are we too numbed to react or respond? Are we too jaded to believe a photo can be real, unstaged, undoctored? Can one child’s fate, captured by a camera, change the world or at least capture its grief?
Precedent for Change
It has happened before. In 1972, at the height of the Vietnam War, Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, Vietnamese himself and just 19 years old, was ready to pack up and go back to the office after shooting some fighting when a plane sprayed napalm. He watched as a throng of screaming children ran toward him, one girl in the middle naked.
In a 2012 interview he replayed the moment: “I saw her left arm burned and her the skin peeling off her back. I immediately thought that she was going to die. … She was screaming and screaming, and I thought, ‘Oh my God.’”
His editors debated whether the photo should be sent out, due to the girl’s nakedness. But one editor insisted, and newspapers across the world published it. The nine-year-old girl was a child like their own.
“The next day,” Ut said, “there were anti-war protests all over the world. Japan, London, Paris … Every day after that, people were protesting in Washington, D.C., outside the White House. ‘Napalm Girl’ was everywhere.” Although the photo is colloquially known as “Napalm Girl,” Nick says he calls it “Terrible War.”
By the way, the girl survived after Ut drove her and other children to a hospital and threatened media exposure if the overwhelmed hospital workers refused to care for them. Today a middle-aged woman, Kim Phuc calls the photographer “Uncle Nick.”
'They Opened People's Eyes'
Later, in Sudan in 1992, South African freelance photographer Kevin Carter shot an iconic photo of hunger. When a United Nations food distribution plane set down, he shot photos of children bent to the dirt, crying. As he watched one girl scrabble at the ground, a huge vulture landed just beyond her. He snapped the photo, which illuminated the famine in Sudan more powerfully than an image of a thousand hungry people would have.
One child, the shape of her body familiar to anyone who has ever held a child.
But the image stirred a familiar controversy among photographers: Can you shoot a photo without intervening to save a target? Carter did not scoop up the girl to fly her back home with him, no. But he said he chased away the vulture.
The image won Carter the Pulitzer Prize. But four months after he took it, he killed himself, leaving a note that said, in part: “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain ... of starving or wounded children …”
After the 2008 hurricane in Haiti, Miami Herald photographer Patrick Farrell won acclaim for an image of another naked child, this time a boy, pushing a broken and filthy baby stroller, apparently reclaimed from the muddy rubble around him. Again, one boy, leading viewers to wonder about his story, his future, and contrast it with their own.
Farrell, still with the Herald, said Thursday the image was among the first published after the initial Haiti storms. It, along with others, won him a Pulitzer Prize. “They were striking and graphic and painful to look at,” he said, “but they opened people’s eyes, especially in Miami, two hours away by plane. It brought them out of their very comfortable lives.”
More than $5 billion was pledged or donated after the Haiti earthquake. Nobody knows what happened to the boy, with whom Farrell never spoke. He believes the image is compelling because “everything is destroyed, but this kid has piled a few things in a stroller and he’s pushing it somewhere. We don’t know where.”
The face of another refugee from danger also captured a crisis and captivated those who saw it. Photographer Steve McCurry’s image of a young Afghan girl at a refugee camp in Pakistan appeared on the cover of the June 1985 National Geographic and remains burned in millions of memories: a girl with tousled hair draped in a rusty red cloth, her eyes huge and fiery with … what? Fear? Defiance? Determination?
McCurry returned to Pakistan 17 years later to find her, worn and weary. Sharbat Gula had never seen her iconic photo. She had not been photographed since. But her eyes are recognized and remembered as ones that cracked open hardened hearts.
A Drowned Boy's Legacy
The photos of the little drowned Syrian boy, shot by Nilufer Demir, who works for Turkey's Dogan News Agency, may well have the same impact.
Farrell, who took the photo of the Haitian boy with the stroller, believes they could well force action on this decade’s refugee crisis: “People in the States have been breezing through those stories. It’s like a noise you hear but tune out. Then there’s one loud pop! that you pay attention to. This picture is that.”
The Haitian boy’s fate is unknown. For years the Afghan girl’s fate was a mystery. But we already know the basics of the Syrian boy’s story. And in days we’ll know more. Aylan Kurdi is dead and so is his five-year-old brother and their mother, survived only by a husband and father who paid $2,000 to try to win his family safety from the continuing strife in Syria.
It sounds harsh, but the photo of the drowned boy is most powerful because its focus is singular. The other 11 dead from the capsized boat are not in it.
Said Rick Shaw from Pictures of the Year International: “I’m a believer in less is more. If there were more children, it would be so disconcerting and horrifying that it wouldn’t register. With one child, it’s a quick read. It’s something that will sear your mind for years to come.”
Susan Ager is a freelance writer based in Michigan. She wrote an article on the revival of her hometown, Detroit, for the May 2015 of National Geographic Magazine. Read more of Susan Ager’s work on her website.