Will today’s Independent front page change the debate on Europe’s refugee crisis?

Is this the day that the debate over Europe’s refugee crisis changed? And was it an image that did it?

Today’s Independent asks “If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don’t change Europe’s attitude to refugees, what will?”

Alone among the UK’s national newspapers, The Independent chose to run an incredibly powerful and distressing image of three year-old Aylan al-Kurdi, laying face-down, dead on a beach in Bodrum, Turkey. Other papers ran different images of the same scene.


The image and its use raise a number of important questions about the role of photography and the media. Firstly, was The Independent right to use that particular image? Would it have done so if the child were British? Is its publication in so prominent a position a violation of the rights of the family?

I would argue that, in this case, it was right to publish. For me, the importance of the story overrides other (legitimate) concerns. All summer, the UK’s media has been running reports on the thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean. Sometimes it takes just one, incredibly powerful, image to break through and focus attention. This may be that image.

How would I feel if it were my child? I have no idea. Just as I have no idea how I would have felt if it had been my terrified child running down that road in Vietnam or starving in Ethiopia. But if this image of Aylan is what it takes to address this crisis in a meaningful way then its publication is justified.

And I do think that it has the chance to do that. All the debate, the conflation of refugee and migrant, the claim and counter claim over who should do what and why – this image shoves all that to one side and says “Look. People are dying. Not ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’ but people. We have to stop this.”

Image: The Guardian
Image: The Guardian

It’s a very different message to that conveyed by other images in the same series used by other papers. The Guardian, Daily Mail, Times and Sun all use images of a rescue worker carrying Aylan. If the rescue worker symbolizes ‘Europe’ and Aylan symbolizes ‘all refugees’, this image is of a caring, compassionate Europe, trying to cope in tragic circumstances. But the Independent’s image suggests a Europe standing back and watching as the crisis unfolds, the refugees abandoned to their fate.

Which all underlines the importance of the choices we make when telling these stories photographically. National newspapers no longer dominate the circulation of such images. Far more distressing pictures of refugees have been appearing on Facebook and Twitter for weeks. But there remains a power in the impact of a front page that endures.

Back to that all-important question asked by The Independent – one that should concern anyone who creates or works with imagery. Will these pictures change anything? International crises such as the one we currently face are complex and difficult. They can only be resolved through coordinated action to address multiple causes and effects. That action requires will and determination across the political spectrum. Images like this can be the catalyst. In themselves they may not solve anything but they might just provide the necessary impetus to those who can. Let’s hope that is the case today.

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