A boy falling out of the sky

On refugees, the photograph and an Old Master

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Another month, another pathetic loser flips out and gets transmogrified into Carlos the Jackal because the media hasn’t found a proper war to replace the one on ‘terror’ yet. Philip Schofield walks across a bridge ‘in tribute and defiance’ and the right wing’s rhetoric rails against refugees, again. It’s all immigration and Muslims once more, even though Kent was the birthplace of the cun-vert. It’s boringly predictable and by now most people have probably forgotten that for a few months at the back end of 2015 everyone, even the Daily Mail, loved them a refugee.

A lot has happened in the last 18 months that your everyday liberal doesn’t like, a large proportion of it, let’s face it, caused by latent (and not so latent) xenophobia, here and abroad. The effect of it being a flaring of even more of the same. So it’s easy to forget a single picture that for a little while nearly made things turn out differently. There’s not many laughs in this one.

On the 2nd September 2015 a 3 year old Syrian boy drowned off the coast of Turkey as he and his family tried to make the crossing to Greece. His mother and brother also died, the father who had tried to cling on to them when their boat capsized, survived. But it was the picture of Alan Kurdi’s small lifeless body on the shore, stood over by the Turkish police officer who found him, that shook the world and turned even those previously lost in a familiar swirl of bigotry and fear, sympathetic to the plight of the thousands of refugees who had throughout the summer of ’15 been desperately trying to reach Europe largely to escape the horror of what had been happening to them in Syria.

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Even the employer of Katie ‘these migrants are like cockroaches’ Hopkins, The Daily Mail, seemed human for a little while stating that the pictures highlighted ‘the horrific human cost of the global migrant crisis“. The image, taken by Turkish journalist Nilufer Demir, was broadcast and tweeted in Turkish media and went viral immediately. At its peak the image was being shared 53,000 times an hour. In one 12 hour period it was shared 20 million times.

The language of the debate around refugees and migrants changed, literally, as a result. Prior to the profusion of the image in 2015 the media was using the term ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ interchangeably. Something that suits the racist, nationalist very well. Migration being seen, largely, as an economic issue, helping a refugee as a moral one. After the profusion of the image the media was three times more likely to use the word ‘refugee’ than ‘migrant’. It was difficult, I suppose, to try and argue that 3 year old Alan was trying to steal anyone’s job. The image pushed the Conservative government into magnanimously allowing some refugees into Britain and may have effected the Canadian general election. The family were said to be hoping eventually to make their way there and this fact became a political football. In the art world Ai We Wei posed as Aylan for a photograph.

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Not sure why. Maybe to draw attention to himself. Two artists painted a huge mural of Alan’s body near the European Bank which I think had a little more of a point to it.

The picture has been compared to a handful throughout the 20th Century that are said to have had a direct impact on policy and public opinion. The ‘Bloody Sunday’ pictures of the Alabama State police kicking fuck out of the peaceful Selma civil rights protestors, which is said to have helped the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

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Nick Ut’s picture of a 9 year old girl running screaming from a napalm bombing that shifted public opinion against the war in Vietnam. kim-phuc-napalmThe anonymous, hooded, wired image of an Iraqi detainee in Abu Graib.important-photos-abu-ghraib-prison

It’s great being the good guys isn’t it?

But I still wonder now, as I did during those few months of peace and love and understanding, what it was about that picture that made this happen? Why did it turn even the coldest hearts? It was far from the first image of dead refugee children washed up on the shores that year. There were many and much more horrific that I won’t be reproducing here.

Is it that the figure of Alan is not too close? He’s so tragically, painfully small, particularly in comparison to the Turkish police officer stood beside him, Mehmet Ciplak. Is it that you can’t clearly see Alan’s face? Or Mehmet’s for that matter as his back is facing the camera?

Partly because of these things the picture is shocking but not too shocking. The western press could put the picture on the front cover of the paper without it putting you off your bacon bap.

The picture is part of several Demir took, one of which shows Mehmet in dynamic action carrying the body away, as if there was still a hope. Where Drowned 3 year’s Old Toddler Alan Kurdi Fled away? WatchThe famous picture though has his shoulders sunk, seemingly making a record on something he holds, like a clipboard, a record of the bureaucratic inconvenience washed up at his feet. Its colour does nothing but emphasise the hopelessness of it. There is barely any, only the red on the boys shirt and the back of the police jacket (which draws the attention, connects the two, reminds us of what flows to give life and, for me, the film The Red Balloon. I don’t know why, other than that is about a boy, alone.) The sand of the beach is not the gold of a tourist poster and the sea is not inviting nor even operatically dramatic like Casper David Friedrich’s ‘From the summit: traveller looking over the sea of fog’.Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog

It’s just waning. Drained of meaning. It’s one of the most hopeless images I’ve ever seen.

None of which particularly goes to answer the question – why this picture stirred those hearts and not another? We can however point at where those hearts shifted back.

In November that year 9 men massacred 130 people in Paris. 89 at an Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan Theatre. Those quiet lapping waves had turned operatic again in the most horrifically tragic way and that’s all it took to wash away the sympathy and compassion that Alan’s image briefly ushered in. Most of the perpetrators of the Paris attack were French or Belgian but they had all been to Syria and several had used the migrant crisis to travel back and forth between Syria and Europe. This event was enough for the suspicion and threat to flood back. It has not gone away and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say this had an impact on political events such as Brexit and Trump.

Which raises another question. Where did all that compassion go?

Perhaps it was never there in the first place. Or perhaps it was there in some, at the same time as the fear and suspicion and that picture only brought it to the fore. Bataclan pushed it back again. The media like the moon pulling and pushing the waves.

Cognitive dissonance is the psychological discomfort we feel when we hold contradictory views or beliefs or our views or beliefs are contradicted by ‘reality’. Humans strive for internal consistency and so avoid, by a number of methods, this dissonance as best they can. Not least by ignoring a cause of that discomfort.

Migrants and refugees are either seen as sympathetic figures or a danger and a threat. That there are thousands of individual refugees is beside the point. We employ human categories to make sense of the world, which is the root of prejudice. To hold or accept that refugees might be sympathetic and a threat can cause cognitive dissonance. And this applies both ways, though refugees should, by any moral standard, be considered sympathetically sometimes (rarely, but sometimes) they are a threat. This is as difficult for the liberal to accept as it is for the bigot to see the refugee as anything other than an exploitative, economic migrant in disguise. The media – mainstream and social – can push and pull the general tendency toward one of these views or the other and they disproportionately steer it toward fear and hate. Except for that photograph. The compassion felt for the refugees as a result of that picture wasn’t fake. But it couldn’t sit comfortably with the terror stirred up by an event like Bataclan.

And though the compassion induced by that photograph may be real it ultimately serves as no threat to the very thing it should be exposing and for a number of reasons. First of all if it is absent of context, it gives no real information. The photograph was largely spread through tweets and Facebook, never the best outlets for detailed contextualisation, and as Sontag says in On Photography, “without a politics, photographs of the slaughter bench of history will, most likely be experienced as, simply, unreal or as a demoralising emotional blow.”

The photograph alone doesn’t even offer information regarding location. It could be any beach, anywhere. It could be any boy. It could be any official.

Photographs also offer the viewer the distasteful feeling of exemption from tragedy and Sontag suggests “looking at them … strengthens the feeling that one is exempt’ creating only a prurient, voyeuristic sensation.  ‘Tonight thank god it’s them instead of you’ as chief bard of the bell ends, Bono, once sang. Revealing as he warbled the perverse satisfaction of not being a part of the disaster. But none of this creates any actual understanding of the situation and without understanding there’s not even a potential solution.

The feeling created by a terrorist act, on the other hand creates a sense of self righteousness alongside the horror and this has to be preferable to being only emotionally demoralised. It seems, at least, that there is someone to blame. Interestingly, in the case of the Paris attack, absent of any defining image, the public created their own. The imposing of the French flag over profile pictures that swamped social media after the attack. It was a means of identifying with the victims that didn’t and hasn’t taken place for refugees or the victims of the endless attacks that kill the ‘others’ in more distant places. And it was as meaningless and as ineffective as any other shorn of consideration of the context.

Ultimately the Alan picture affected little and incited no effective action for another reason explained by John Berger in his 1972 essay Photographs of Agony. In it he suggests images of the horrors of war are allowed in the west, even those the west is responsible for, because they don’t ultimately effect the political system. If they did they wouldn’t be allowed. He talks of how the photographic image is discontinuous in time, it is a slice we look at, not the whole thing, but also our looking at the photograph is also discontinuous in time and the effect of looking, and then looking away, has a profoundly demoralising effect on us.

“We are filled with either despair or indignation…we try to emerge from the moment of the photograph back into our lives. As we do so, the contrast is such that the resumption of our lives appears to be a hopelessly inadequate response to what we have just seen.”

Because of this sense of ‘moral inadequacy‘ we perform a penance, perhaps by giving to a charity (or by decorating a picture of our face with a French flag) but, in alleviating our discomfort in this way we are actually depoliticised. The system that causes and allows these things to happen comes under no actual threat at all from the image. It’s perhaps even defended by it.

In his essay, Berger comments as an aside on those that pass over photographs such as these contemptuously, stating ‘about them there is nothing to say‘. But is it any wonder that people do pass over, so anaesthetised or demoralised by the images have we become? And some do have something to say about those that ‘turn away’ and of the tragedy that unfolds elsewhere, for me never more eloquently than in Auden’s Musee des Beaux-Arts. I’ve tried in writing this to talk about how the poem does it but, in the end, the poem, and the picture, do it without needing any help from me. So I’ll just leave it to them. Now that I’ve looked I can look away.

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About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy
life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

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