“I Shouldn’t Have To See This Picture On My Newsfeed”: An Argument For Looking Anyway

Every day we do not talk about the ongoing violence being done to asylum seekers is a day we are complicit in their suffering.

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This piece has been edited and updated from a Facebook post shared yesterday.

“I shouldn’t have to see this on my newsfeed.”

Yesterday, I saw people share a shocking image, and saw many others criticise them for sharing it. Some thought sharing it was an abuse of privilege (fair call), and some thought it was crass and indecent (cop out). Some published posts expressing how happy they were that more of their friends were warning people from sharing it than sharing it themselves (smug and politically impotent), while others argued that forcing people to look at a photo would never bring about change (not always true), and could harm the mental health of others (mindful, but ineffective).

Last Sunday, I spoke to a room full of medical students about empathy. I began by showing an image of another Syrian refugee, desperately holding her baby’s head above water. The image had gone viral the day before, and I commented that the sheer volume of images we now consume means the impact of that image may never match that of a similar image from the past – for instance, 1972’s “The Girl in the Picture”: a Vietnamese girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, screaming and running from a napalm attack.

I left the photo up for the rest of the speech, and returned to it at the end. I told the audience that for the woman and her baby, there was nothing we could do for them in that moment. None of us were there to dive in and save them, obviously. Besides, that image was actually two years old (despite only going viral the day before my talk). The baby in the image drowned in that sea, and his mother lived on to have to tell that story. Her name is Rukhsan Muhhamed and her son was named Mirwan.

That part of the story wasn’t attached to the tweet I saw, the one that was going viral. There is hope in the drama of the unknown. The possibility of them both being saved.

Yesterday, another image was being shared. The body of a little three-year-old boy, Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a European beach — another drowning from another boatload of people attempting to not die in their homeland. His five-year-old brother Galip also died in the wreck; his body was found washed up on another part of the beach.

The photo of Aylan is perhaps even more brutal than the abject trauma on display in the mother and son image that circulated earlier this week. It is desolate. There is no drama, no tension, no questioning, “Did they make it?” Just the denouement of a tragedy.

The ocean’s current has rolled the body of the little boy ashore, and laid him out almost peacefully with his little arms by his side, his little sandals still on his feet. That the water which ultimately took his life could have returned him to land so gently is perhaps me just grabbing at the poetic, because the reality is so fucking cruel. This is no funereal display from nature, because the little boy is lying there face down, in the wet sand. The ocean has rejected him, just like we would have.

Lingering over him is a Turkish Official, as impotent and useless as the rest of us. Were this on Australian shores, he may be wearing the resplendent black uniform of the Border Force. Were this on Australian shores, we wouldn’t be seeing this photograph. They wouldn’t let a camera close enough.

That’s the final sting left by this image. Through all the useless anger, sadness, and tears that swept over me as I looked at the image of Aylan Kurdi, one terrible thought wouldn’t go away: this child would not have been much better off had he made it anywhere near Australia. The alternative we offer – indefinite imprisonment, inhumane living conditions, and exposure to physical, mental, and sexual abuse — would damn him to a lifetime of suffering. Suffering that we voted for.   

This image could be the “napalm girl” of this messy, endless war we’re in. Except this war is one being waged against asylum seekers. And we can’t even agree on the fucking politics of sharing it, let alone stopping it from happening again.

“No more deaths at sea!” demand our political leaders — but we’re not saving lives, we’re just making the most vulnerable people in the world die somewhere else. Moving them from one column to another. It’s not humanitarian; it’s just shitty accounting.

“I shouldn’t have to see this on my newsfeed.” No, you shouldn’t. And there’s reasons why some people are within their rights not to share it without fair warning: if you know that people in your social media circle don’t have the mental health or emotional capacity to deal with it; or if cultural protocols deem the sharing of such images as disrespectful or offensive. However, a considered choice to not share an image isn’t the same as choosing not to talk about the issue.

I’ve chosen to link to the images instead of publishing them because I have become very aware that dragging people towards action, and activism, is nearly impossible. In our land of plenty where we are spoilt for choice, I leave the decision to become involved up to viewer. It’s up to everyone to do something.

Every day we do not talk about the ongoing violence being done to asylum seekers is a day we are complicit in their suffering. I want to bear witness to that image until ones like it stop coming — not because we stop seeing them due to “operational matters”, but because we’ve done something about it. I want to hold all our heads so close to this image that we have to wipe the wet sand off our faces.

Here is the photo of Aylan Kurdi, the boy on the beach.

Here is the photo of Ruhksan and Mirwan Muhammed.

And here is the photo of Phan Thi Kim Phuc.

Nic Holas has written for The Guardian, Archer Magazine, Hello Mr, and Star Observer. You can find him on Twitter @nicheholas, or in his role as co-founder of HIV social umbrella The Institute of Many.

Feature image of Aylan and Galip Kurdi via @Qattouby on Twitter.