On The Memefication Of Aylan Kurdi, And The Power And Ethics Of Sharing Photos

The viral photo of Aylan’s body has catalysed action around the refugee crisis in Europe -- but sharing images like this comes with some very complex concerns. There are also some very complex concerns around sharing images like this that should give us pause.

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You might have seen, a few weeks ago, one of those small controversies that perpetually flare up across the internet: Brian Grasso, a Christian student at Duke University, publicly announced that he would not be reading Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home – which the university had recommended as summer reading to all incoming freshmen – for religious reasons.

In the wake of Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s controversial Atlantic cover story about how protecting mental health on campus was impacting education, this incident provoked another flurry of thinkpieces and handwringing about kids today, the coddling nature of college, and whether trigger warnings are bad.

Except, of course, it was all a bit of a beat-up: Grasso was not representative of Duke’s student body as a whole, and he didn’t object to Fun Home because it contained LGBTQ themes or was written by a lesbian. Instead, as he made plain in an op-ed for the Washington Post after the brouhaha erupted, he refused to read Fun Home because it visually depicted sex, and his interpretation of the Bible forbids him from consuming images of any kind of sex: straight, gay, in-between, or solo.

In short, Grasso is an iconoclast: someone whose religious beliefs leads them to believe that images have a particular power, and therefore must be tightly controlled. And in the light of viral images emerging from the Syrian refugee crisis this week, it’s worth pondering whether the iconoclasts are onto something.

The Endless Flow of Images

In today’s industrialised, capitalist West, there aren’t many iconoclasts left. We are barraged by imagery daily, on our smartphones and computers via the internet and social media, or on the front cover of newspapers for those who still #buythepaper. Most of this imagery is harmless – a sheep that hasn’t been shorn for years; a swearing bird; cute cats, dogs, otters, capybaras, etc. – but, often despite our best efforts, more disturbing stuff will pop up.

It’s been almost impossible to avoid seeing Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian refugee whose drowned body was found washed up on a Turkish beach last week. Photos of Kurdi’s body — face-down in the sand in one, and being carried away by Turkish police officer Mehmet Çıplak in another — were first published by The Independent and have since gone viral, held up as visual evidence of the brutality of European refugee policies, and the enormity of the current crisis.

Aylan and his family had been attempting to land on the Greek island of Kos, with the aim of eventually making it to Canada to live with relatives. The overloaded boat they were on capsized in calm waters, and Aylan, his five-year-old brother Galip, and his mother Rehan drowned. His father Abdullah survived, and now plans to return to his hometown of Kobanî – an epicentre of conflict in Syria’s brutal civil war that was under siege by ISIL militants for months.

Aylan’s story is utterly tragic: he was born into a country at war, denied an exit visa from Turkey, and denied refugee status in Canada. His family boarded a boat operated by people smugglers to make the twenty-kilometre crossing between Bodrum and Kos as a last-ditch effort to reach the safety of the European Union. His death can be chalked up to any number of failings on the part of others: Syria’s descent into chaos after the Arab Spring and the emergence of ISIL; Turkey’s unwillingness to legitimise those fleeing Syria as refugees (Syrians fleeing conflict are instead ‘guests’ in Turkey, who do not receive the legal protections of the UN Convention on Refugees); the ‘Fortress Europe’ attitude to border protection; the reticence of the Arab world’s wealthiest countries to do anything about the Syrian refugee crisis; and the greed of people smugglers, which made what would have been a short trip in calm water a fatal one.

The photo of Aylan’s drowned body, face-down on the beach, shocks us not only because it is a confronting image – as any photo of a drowned child would be – but also because it captures the end point of the multiple failings listed above. In order to fully understand the image and be subject to its power, we need to understand at least some of its context. (Or, to put it another way: the photo would not have gone as viral had Aylan been the victim of a drowning accident during a family holiday.)

To the extent that the photo of Aylan’s body raises awareness of these intersecting geopolitical issues, its circulation is a good thing. But there are also some very complex concerns around sharing images like this that should give us pause.

Who Owns the Image, Anyway?

Social media encourages the sharing of content, and as part of that endless circulation certain vital pieces of context go missing.

The first casualty is often copyright: while it’s unlikely that you’ll be sent a cease-and-desist notice for reposting an image without the permission of the rights holder, quite technically this is copyright infringement. In this case the copyright inheres with the images’ photographer, Nilüfer Demir, and her employer, Doğan News Agency. While websites such as The Independent’s have arranged a licensing agreement with Demir and Doğan News Agency, if you share the content on Facebook or Twitter – or republish it directly on your website – without first arranging a similar licensing agreement, you are technically infringing their copyright.

Of course, everyone shares images on social media, and the world’s court systems would grind to a halt if every act of social media copyright infringement were actually prosecuted. But there are more legal issues than just who owns the photo.

Since photos often contain images of real-life people whose reputations can be affected by the context in which those photographs appear, the subjects of photos also have rights, and can seek remedies if those rights are breached. For example, in 2007 Virgin Mobile Australia was sued by a Texan teenager for its use of a Creative Commons–licensed photo of her in one of their advertising campaigns. The photograph itself had been taken by the girl’s youth counsellor, who gave the photo a Creative Commons license when uploading it to Flickr. The photo was then discovered by Virgin Mobile, who used it in an advertising campaign without seeking the permission of the subject, who felt that the advertisement infringed her privacy and libelled her. While the case was eventually thrown out because the Texas court found it didn’t have jurisdiction over the Australian company, it did highlight the fact that any number of rights other than copyright – rights to privacy, moral rights, and so on – inhere within photographs.

If neither of these considerations give you pause, consider that Aylan Kurdi’s family has requested that social media users cease circulating the photos of his drowned body. Instead they would like the world to remember him as he was alive: as a happy young boy.

Iconic Photos And The Greater Good

It hasn’t taken long for the photograph of Kurdi face down on the beach to be considered ‘iconic’ and compared to previous iconic images of child casualties of conflict: the naked and badly burned Phan Thị Kim Phúc running down a road near Trang Bang, Vietnam; the nameless emaciated and starving child watched by a vulture in South Sudan; Iraqi boy Ali Ismail Abbas, both arms amputated, in a makeshift hospital.

Just as each of these photographs helped crystallise public opinion about these conflicts, so too do we hope that the recirculation of the photograph of Kurdi will turn public opinion in favour of the compassionate treatment of refugees.

While the photograph of Kurdi has certainly mobilised activism in the West – the Australian government has just announced a one-off humanitarian intake of 12,000 Syrian refugees, and even those UK tabloids who have in the past stirred anti-refugee sentiment are now positioning themselves as bastions of compassion – repeated exposure to the image is unlikely to drive further change.

In fact, repeated exposure to the image is more likely to deaden our instinct to challenge the inhuman systems that lead to Kurdi’s death. As Susan Sontag notes in her 1977 book On Photography, “Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more – and more. Images transfix. Images anesthetise.” Consider the well-known – and truly iconic – photograph of Phan Thị Kim Phúc: it’s a photo that those of us who were born after the Vietnam war have lived with our entire lives. Repeated exposure to it – in history classes, university tutorials, in books, etc. – has deadened our response to it. We no longer register the agony on Phan’s face as she runs naked and napalm-burned down the road, but instead see a visual shorthand for concepts like “the Vietnam war”, “napalm”, “the horrors of war”.

While iconic images often become visual shorthands for the periods of history that produced them, we can’t necessarily predict the moral response that the image will elicit, because different people will read the photograph according to their own prejudices and political philosophies. Thus the photograph of Kurdi’s body has been taken simultaneously by those on the left in Australia as an indictment against closed-border policies in general, while our Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has instead seen it as a vindication of his ‘stop the boats’ policy.

Then there’s sentiments like this:

There’s also the issue of our emotional investment in images of children’s suffering: you don’t have to agree with Brendan O’Neill’s aggressively contrarian politics to share his concern that part of the reason the photograph of Kurdi’s body has gone viral is that our emotional response to it makes us feel virtuous. The image has become a site of cathexis for many of us – but what ideas and emotions are being channelled into it, and what action will emerge from it, are not predictable in advance. The photograph has so far spurred leaders into declaring good intentions for Syrian refugees, but when part of that concern translates into bombing missions in Syria that could well increase the flow of refugees leaving the country, no outcomes are guaranteed.

The Memefication of Everything

The technology that allows us to disseminate images at such speed also allows us to edit and annotate images, and the photograph of Kurdi’s body has been no exception.

Within hours of its appearance, the photo of Kurdi became an image macro, with an excerpt of British tabloid columnist Katie Hopkins’s infamous broadside against immigration – “Show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care” – superimposed over the top. If you are inclined to see what trash the cesspits of the internet can generate, you can browse through galleries of memes that have photoshopped the photo of Kurdi’s body for supposedly humorous effect. (The memes themselves seem to follow no coherent political philosophy, instead merely reaching for shock value and “teh lulz”.)

The image has gone on to be referenced in a number of different ways, particularly in cartoons. Not long after the original image emerged, Buzzfeed posted a listicle of ‘17 Heartbreaking Cartoons From Artists All Over The World Mourning The Drowned Syrian Boy’. Here we find Kurdi drowned a second time, in an ocean of schmaltz, as cartoonists from around the world race to generate the most sharable take on his tragic death: angel wings and roses, crying marine life, the spirit of his dead mother reaching down to carry him into the afterlife.

Australian political cartoonists have gotten in on the action too, using the images as the basis for their own takes on the issue: from Cathy Wilcox’s heartfelt tribute to Kurdi through Mark Knight’s more cynical take on the inaction of the West, to David Pope’s lampooning of Tony Abbott’s warmongering stance. (I guess the ‘beach’ plus ‘speedos’ connection was irresistible.)

Each of these derivative images, whether its creator means to or not, saps power from the original. The cartoons and the memes proliferate, copies of copies, and the original disappears from view, reduced to yet more fodder for internet #content. Where the original photograph is so powerful precisely because it brings us close to Kurdi’s suffering and eventual death – stripping away the abstractions like “queue jumper” and “migrant” and revealing him as a human being whose short life was ended by a catastrophic chain of human failures – the proliferations of memes from the original photograph only serves to take us further away from him.

When An Image Becomes This Powerful, We Need To Use It Wisely

The contemporary West doesn’t have much time for literal iconoclasts like Brian Grasso. The prevailing logic of the moment seems to be one where images must circulate freely, and any imposition on that circulation is read as censorship. Thus in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris earlier this year, there were calls for all newspapers that valued freedom of expression to republish the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that were the pretext for the attacks. (Never mind that freedom of expression only makes sense when publications have the choice to refuse to publish content that does not accord with their values.)

It’s worth remembering that much of the anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and Australia alike can be traced back to an anxiety about conflicting value systems, and that the power of visual imagery is one of the topics of contention between a secularised (if not always atheist), postmodern West and contemporary Islam. The question of whether it is forbidden or permitted to visually depict the prophet Muhammad is one of the theological questions that divides Wahhabist Sunni Muslims from Shia Muslims. (The ISIL militia that has made life in Syria so intolerable for so many claims to be a hardline Wahhabist group, and uses Qur’anic verses prohibiting idol worship to justify its destruction of priceless antiquities in Palmyra and Mosul.) Many other cultures maintain strong taboos about what can and cannot be depicted visually – some Indigenous Australian cultures forbid naming and representing the recently deceased, for example. In a truly multicultural and pluralist society, the question of what can and cannot be visually depicted will only become more contentious.

The photograph of Aylan Kurdi lying face-down on a beach, drowned, is a remarkably powerful image. Not only that, it’s an image that reminds those of us who live in the hyper-mediated West, where we have become inured to visual imagery through its proliferation online and offline, of the potential power of visual imagery. We owe it to Kurdi himself to acknowledge the power of the photographs of his body, and to use that power wisely.

Chad Parkhill is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. He has written for  The AustralianThe Lifted BrowKillings (the blog of Kill Your Darlings), Meanjin and The Quietus.

Feature image via Muhammad Lila on Twitter.