The photos we didn’t see

Aylan Kurdi. Somehow, against all the odds, a three year old refugee from Kobane in Syria made the headlines of international newspapers, and through one act became a household name. The act? He drowned, and when his body washed up in Bodrum, Turkey, a photographer was there to take the photos.

The issue is, Aylan wasn’t travelling alone, a fact that is already being forgotten by politicians, journalists and the public. Aylan was travelling with his family, and was only one of a number of children drowned in this single incident, in which his elder brother and mother also drowned. Yet why is the media focused solely upon Aylan and his family? His funeral in Kobane on Friday was a sea of cameras, journalists and saw a response from a number of politicians and heads of state.

The reason that Aylan will be remembered, where so many others are not, is that the photos of a number of children drowned in a similar crossing had gone viral the week before. So, when the photos of Aylan’s lifeless body being carried by a Turkish policeman began to spread on social media, the newspapers swiftly cottoned on. The realisation had arrived that this was becoming an issue that people cared about. Around the world, the photos swiftly gained traction, articles containing them being shared hundreds if not thousands of times on social media. And all of a sudden, the public gained a conscience.

Unfortunately though, Aylan is not the first, nor will he be the last, refugee to be found drowned, attempting to flee the conflict in Syria. It doesn’t mean that he is the first to be photographed either; many others have been, but have not made it into the press. There is an obsession with Aylan Kurdi; he has become the human face of a refugee crisis.

We have known that photography is a good way to bring a conflict or situation into the public gaze for a long time. The infamous tank man photograph from the Tiananmen Square massacres, the photo of Kim Phúc with her clothes burned off by an American napalm strike in Vietnam, running towards the camera. There are dozens of others. The UN used the powers of photography on their own staff, setting up an exhibit in March this year of photos of torture victims from the Syrian Conflict. The photos served to remind their staff of what they were working for.

Photography is undeniably a powerful medium, and can describe the most graphic of situations in a way to bring them to life, such as the death of Aylan. But the ever present issue with photographs is that they only show so much, and we only see a tiny minority of them. Now, for a brief while, the world has seen the plight of the Syrian refugees. It must not waste this opportunity to assist those fleeing Syria, but it must not ignore those others who are also fleeing their homes, be it in Ukraine, Sudan, Syria, Iraq or anywhere. Because, even if these people have not been photographed in life or death, their struggle is still real, and they are still human.

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