Last week, a photo was taken of the body of a Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, being picked up off a beach by a Turkish policeman. On Thursday, numerous newspapers, including those who had been so scathing of 'migrants', published the photo on their front covers, the photo accompanying a plea for the government to do more about the refugee crisis. There were other factors too, but the photo, which caused a surge of public sympathy, was a major reason for David Cameron changing the government's position: on Wednesday he was saying that Britain taking "more and more refugees" wouldn't solve the crisis and by Friday, after the photo had 'gone viral', Britain was a "moral country" that would take in thousands of refugees. That the government is now more open to refuges is clearly a good thing. What is unnerving though is that media and popular opinion, which in this instance so impacted on government policy, was so influenced by a photo.
Imagine if the photo of Aylan Kurdi hadn't been taken. And before that, imagine if the Turkish policeman had decided not to walk on the beach at that moment in time, where the photographer happened to be. Would the sudden and collective tide of sympathy of the British people been roused? Perhaps. Perhaps another photo as similarly evocative and provocative would have emerged. And public opinion and then government policy followed suit. But there have been numerous other moving photos of the refugee crisis. What particular qualities of this photo warranted such attention in the UK press, and moved public opinion so much?
It seems worryingly fragile that in this instance, the level of tragedy, and the requirement to help out others, was so conditional on the particular qualities of a photo that was deemed to represent and embody that tragedy. Should not our human concern for others exist irrespective of whether there are photos there to represent a crisis? Even if there are photos, should not awareness of the facts of the plight of others be the main reason to galvanise us to demand they are helped out? This might be wishful thinking. It would be both delusional and counterproductive not to acknowledge that our sympathies are moved by visual aids, in a way they aren't by facts about for instance how many refugees have died and how many are currently displaced. We are often more moved by the death of one individual if that death is portrayed as particularly tragic, than we are by the death of many more. As John Blight morbidly muses at the end of his poem Death of a Whale, "Sorry, we are, too, when a child dies: But at the immolation of a race, who cries?" But acknowledging the realities of the human psyche doesn't mean we should be comfortable with our sympathy for others being so influenced by how a plight is represented, rather than how much suffering is experienced. Nor be comfortable that an image so utterly supplants the contribution of reason and debate in weighing up what moral obligations we might have to others.
It should be acknowledged that journalism, through the photographs and films it provides, plays an essential humanitarian role that can save lives. As the American photojournalist James Nachtwey puts it, "journalism is a service industry and the service we provide is awareness." There are parallels in the past with the impact of the photo of Aylan Kurdi. In 1972, the iconic photograph of a naked and screaming Kim Phuc, better known as 'Napalm Girl', shocked the world and reinforced an already sceptical public in the USA against the Vietnam War. In 1984, reporting by the BBC's Michael Buerk first showed on British TV screens the suffering of millions of starving but neglected Ethiopians.
It could be said that the photo of Aylan Kurdi is part of this tradition. That it embodies the importance and power of journalism. What does it matter that it required this photo to stimulate sympathy for the other refugees? It raised concern of the issue in a way that nothing else previously had, and now government policy has changed. But there is something unsettling that it took this photo to stimulate concern. And that in turn, government policy was changed at the whim of the circumstances of a photo that could so easily have not come about. The case for Britain taking in more refugees should not have been so reliant on this single photo. This time, the photo managed to encourage the government to take a more sympathetic stance. But next time, there might not be images like this to rely on. Next time, there might not even be a photo.