A photograph of a dead three-year-old boy whose body washed onto a Turkish beach after the sinking of a migrant boat has been splashed across newspapers in Europe, adding fuel to the already fiery refugee crisis debate in Europe.
It is a potent image and one that is instantly polarising. The lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi as it lay face down at the water’s edge, and another of his corpse being carried from the beach by a Turkish police officer, is confronting. The thought of such a young life lost is distressing to any parent; yet the image epitomises the human toll as tens of thousands flee Syria and other areas under the influence of Islamic State.
The front page of almost every major newspaper in Britain carried either one or both images.
Several UK papers, including some previously criticised for their hard-line approach to the European refugee crisis, demanded action from British PM David Cameron on England’s relatively low refugee intake compared to other countries in the European Union.
The photograph also dominated the front pages of major newspapers in Sweden, a number of news websites in Spain and spread rapidly through social media channels.
It also created debate in Australia on two counts – one on the publication of the image and the other on Europe’s refugee flood.
Fairfax Media senior writer Rick Feneley, a former editor of Sydney’s The Sun Herald, likened the power of the image to that of Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1972 photograph of a nine-year-old Vietnamese girl running naked from a napalm attack.
In a piece published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, Mr Feneley wrote the decision in most cases with images of this type was to publish.
“Only a week ago, newsrooms around the world chose not publish the images taken by Vester Flanagan as he executed two of his former colleagues, journalist Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward, while they recorded a live interview on television in Virginia,” he wrote.
“The circumstances were vastly different. The public interest could not have been served by the mass consumption of a real-life murder in action. Publication of those horrific pictures could only have played into the hands of Flanagan, who wanted maximum exposure of his crime. It might have encouraged other deranged attention-seekers to kill.
“The tragic pictures of Aylan Kurdi are different. They have become an instant and potent meme, a message that took hours to captivate the world.”
Fairfax Media blogger Sam de Brito suggested it was natural for those distressed by the image to turn away but this should not be turned into an argument for censorship. “We must let the media do its job,” he wrote.
“Unfortunately, there are so many other ways to view this class of photography, news organisations simply add a further layer of irrelevancy between themselves and the user by not publishing the picture.”
De Brito said the European refugee crisis was a troubling concept for most Australians. “Many of us . . . reduce it to an abstraction; it’s ‘over there’, ‘it’s none of our business.
“However, a picture of a dead little boy makes it ‘real’; a dead kid is everyone’s business. When you see something like that it stays with you, unnerves and upsets you in a manner no sound grab or paragraph ever can.
“And maybe, just maybe, if your unease remains, intensifies, or becomes so frequent you can’t ignore it, you’ll be forced to do something about it.”
Piers Akerman, a columnist for The Daily Telegraph in Sydney, examined the politics behind the issue. He wrote that the body of young Aylan had become a powerful new image of European failure to take a united stand against Islamist barbarism.
“The reality is that there will be many more corpses washed up on beaches around the Mediterranean . . . unless Europe takes tough action to halt the flow of refugees at the source,” he wrote.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott embraced a similar philosophy. Mr Abbott said this morning the “very sad” images of the Syrian boy demonstrated the need for countries to adopt tough policies to stop asylum seekers arriving by boat.