Why was Aylan Kurdi’s life worth kindness from the press in death, but not in life?

by Chimene Suleyman

His name is Aylan Kurdi. Say it. He was three years old when he began his journey from the Syrian town, Kobani which has only known violence throughout Aylan’s short life. Amidst a Syrian civil war and a town besieged by Isis, Aylan’s family travelled thousands of miles through Turkey where they took a boat from Akyarlar. The boat — rather, an overcrowded dingy — would take them to the Greek island of Kos, only it capsized and Aylan, with his five year old brother, Galip and their mother, Rehan drowned with at least a dozen more. It was eventually Canada that the Kurdi family and others like them hoped to reach. Not for jobs, benefits, or social housing. Simply for a chance to live. Instead, on a Bodrum beach their bodies washed up and it was here that a photograph was taken of Aylan on the shore.

On the front page of The Independent, The Guardian, The Sun, Daily Mail, and The Times, the young boy lay face down in the sand, or carried by a Turkish gendarme. “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?” The Independent’s headline asked. “Tiny victim of a human catastrophe” from the Daily Mail.

There is a peculiarity to it. Memories are short. To this day much of the British press have riled suspicion and contempt towards refugees and Muslims, which has contributed to the depressing lack of aid and resentment shown to Syrians over the last few years.

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Where the vast majority of Syria’s refugees are living

On the same day as Aylan’s death, 200 refugees were pulled from a train by Czech police and, in scenes horrifyingly reminiscent of Nazi practice, were marked with numbers on their arms. It is not the first time comparisons have been made between current-day European treatment of Muslims and the rhetoric that surrounded Jews in the 1930s. Name-calling, such as bugs and rats (the language of extermination) circulates beside caricatures of long and hooked nose Arabs within a Europe that deeply resents those travelling to safety from persecution elsewhere. A worrying template is being followed.

In fact, if you are presented with press cuttings about refugees and asylum seekers from the 1930s and present day, then asked to identify which period they are from, the Refugee Council have some very disturbing realisations on the matter. Most people get it wrong. Britain — and indeed Europe’s — intolerance of refugees (if you haven’t noticed by now) is not new. It’s this that makes the published images of dead Syrians, Palestinians, Nigerians, and so on, feel a touch insincere. It begs the question, why was Aylan Kurdi’s life worth kindness from the press in death, but not in life?

I do understand the public’s desire to share it — the overwhelming urgency with which we must desperately provide evidence of tragedy, so those with a harmful stance on asylum can reassess. The logic is there: If you wish this child were still alive (why wouldn’t you), then you must welcome refugees so others like him may live. It makes sense. Only, it’s impossible not to be cynical of the click-bait like nature of it all. In particular from a British press, who have both danced lightly and bulldozed over the line, when presenting on the topic of immigration and Muslims. Are they nameless burden-on-society migrants; or refugees? Are they cockroaches who deserve to drown (as The Sun has published in the recent past, in an article still on their website); or are they the image of a dead child who should have legally been let into Europe to live?

Here is another question it seems the media are unsure of — Do we need to see photos of death to gauge the severity of it? Last week journalist, Alison Parker and her cameraman, Adam Ward were shot live on air by an ex colleague. Western media was clear on the message: don’t share the video or stills from it. News outlets across America and Britain urged social media users to share only the pictures they ran with. Smiling photos of the pair at work or with their partners, nestled into a happy time of life. Whilst unavoidable debates took place around America’s gun-laws, the discussions would not be allowed to interrupt our perception of Parker and Ward as people, not as tragic political examples.

Aylan Kurdi has been made an example of. As well-meaning as the photograph’s sharers may be, unfortunately it is not his life that we are urged to remember and consequently do better by, but a sensationalism of his horrific death.

On a television set in New York a blurry video of a policeman with his hand on a gun walked towards a car, the occupant a black man: “Did this officer kill this man? Stay tuned to find out.” I was slack-jawed. All across the black community and BLM movement people were grieving. In mainstream media their lives were entertainment. It was the cliff-hanger before the advert. The pivotal moment in the scene. Suspense. You didn’t want to miss this.

42-500x269The videos of black people murdered by the police play news channels on loop. Alongside them still images of the victim are shown from photographs in which they look tense, brutal, aggressive. It’s hard not to think of the photo of Mark Duggan standing beside his daughter’s grave, cropped of all context so that his pensive look should now be displayed as ‘thuggish’. It is not smiling images of black and brown people at graduation and family-functions that we are urged to look at it. Cheerful, happy and successful is not how we are expected to remember them.

Of course, when black and brown people are unequivocally not to blame, they are sacrificed to victimhood. There is no middle ground. “If there’s one picture you share of Alison and Adam let it be this one of them accomplished, loved and alive.” No, this is not the case for people of colour. It is not three-dimensions we are afforded. Bleakly, we remain the poster-face for violence and death.

There is also the matter of consent. One which bypasses the family in its entirety. Does it matter that the family of Aylan Kurdi and many like him will come unwillingly, unprepared, across the image of their son, or brother, or wife? It should. For those of us that know what it is like — you must take my word — it is devastating. And where does the interaction with the image end? In 1964 a photograph of my grandfather’s tortured body was taken in Cyprus and immortalised in such a manner. Then In 2014 an American man entered a restaurant in Port Washington, on the other side of the world, wearing a t-shirt with the image of my grandfather’s corpse spread across his chest. The restaurant’s owner was shocked. “That’s my uncle,” he said, “Why are you wearing a photo of my uncle like that?”

The answer is always the same: to raise awareness for human rights. It may sound well meaning but don’t be fooled by it. It conveniently overlooks that it is never white bodies that are worn or shown like this. Simply put, the bodies of people of colour are commodified for white gaze. They are used to sell t-shirts and newspapers and memes and clickbait. Their function is political and to push agendas. We are never allowed to just live.

Aylan Kurdi’s father survives him. He will remember his son in the moments he was happy, smiling and loved. The narrative of Aylan Kurdi’s life should not be dictated by the British or European press. If the anti-immigration rhetoric and mistreatment of Muslim’s is playing on British minds, so be it. There is an intense level of damage they have caused, which needs to be undone. It will take vast commitment from the British press to do so and it will not go away with reactionary images.

Write to your MP and demand that our government accepts and helps refugees. Sign the petition circulating and others like it. Educate yourself on why people need to relocate urgently and why they are willing to risk their lives to do so. Challenge your colleagues, family, friends and the table sitting next to you in the pub who are unforgiving of people across the world moving with a right to live and without fear. Do not be complicit with silence. Do not hijack the image of someone’s death to make your point. Frankly, it is lazy of the media to use a powerful image like this in the hope it will overwrite the thousands of harmful words they have used to demonise Aylan Kurdi and his family when they lived. We all bleed the same. We do not need to cut people of colour open to believe it.

All work published on Media Diversified is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Media Diversified. For further information, please see our reposting guidelines.

Chimene Suleyman is a writer from London of Turkish / Middle Eastern heritage. She writes opinion pieces, contributing to The Independent as well as regularly featured writing for online blog and events organiser Poejazzi. She has represented the UK at the International Biennale, Rome 2011 with spoken word. Her poetry collection “Outside Looking On” published by Influx Press is out now. She collects photos of Canary Wharf. Find her on Twitter: @chimenesuleyman

 

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8 replies

  1. If you want a comparison, look at how white (by most definitions) Che Guevara is remembered. To this day the iconic image taken at a funeral is used and distributed, not the one of his tortured and mutilated body.
    Brown and black bodies are there to stare at.
    White people are there to be remmebered.

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  2. Great article.

    People often respond saying, well if this image changes hearts and minds then doesn’t it serve a greater purpose. But will it really? Cameron said the UK would take 10,000 people in, but he also said the UK would take the most “vulnerable” and so the discourse and rhetoric around migrants / refugees / people doesn’t move away from the deserving (vulnerable, weak, compliant, etc.. migrants that we can “save”. “They” become “heros”, and “we” (white / British / European etc are gratified by our selfless actions) and the undeserving (illegals, agentic, non-Christian, bit too brown tone skin, etc.). The picture doesn’t serve a greater purpose because it doesn’t really change anything at all. It will change the lives of these 10,000 people, but it won’t change how they are treated (badly) in the UK, the lives of their families left behind and other migrants / refugees still struggling to get into Europe.

    Essentially, the images make people feel bad, makes them want to do something, they do something and then they want to feel good about it. But the images should never have been distributed in the first place. People should understood the root causes of migration, ie. inequality, racism and legacies of colonialism to change the debate and discourse around migration, they should stop feeling sorry for brown / black people around the world, and act on pity alone (bc that’s really what’s happening here). No one wants our (white / European) pity!

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  3. Although I agree with the sentiments of this article the fact remains that the press publishing the picture of Alan has lead to Cameron softening his stance in relation to allowing more refugees in. Whether we like it it not, our press is on the whole right wing and as a result my grandparents, parents and my generation have grown up being told migrants are bad, with no differentiation made between them and refugees. Over the last few months I’ve spoken to friends and colleagues and i get a very similar response from all… We are full. Our services cannot cope.

    Yes, the hypocrisy of the press showing the photo of Aylan is shocking but if it means that Cameron’s promise to offer refuge to some from UN camps is a result then surely that is a positive outcome from such a horrific and heartbreaking picture. If people sharing the photo of his lifeless body changes the attitudes of some people by highlighting the tragedy of one family then surely this is a positive outcome from such an horrific and heartbreaking picture. The public read about swarms, invasions, economic migrants and cock roaches. Sometimes, we all need reminding about the horrifying reality of the situation.

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    • What you say here Becky makes some relative sense, i wouldn’t doubt that.. but it seems like in the next turn things will be worse..don’t you have the same sense??

      Seems crucial that all of us should ask ourselves “what is a holistic, total action in relation to this huge issue”.. can thought in terms of justification (such tragedies are inevitable, we can’t do anything), condemnation (humanity deserves to extinct), blaming (politicians should be punished), pre-measurement (whatever i do, it won’t solve the problem so i feel its hypocritic to offer anything) bring a holistic action? Or it’s just inaction/reaction that makes things even worse?

      Thought being a limited (based on limited knowledge) and divisive (focusing on the best interest of Me against yours) factor seems to perpetuate the issue (the core of such issue, seems it’s the division, the illusion that we are separate, its Me and You and our interests are conflicting), it can’t solve the problem..

      ..having seen the truth of that we are not interested anymore in thoughts.. then thought ceases and the capacity to see things exactly as they are, the capacity to connect with What is, seems to bring on its own, immediate, holistic action..

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  4. Kenan Rahmani:
    The ultimate injustice one can commit to Aylan Kurdi and his family is to omit the parts of his story which explain why he ended up dead on the beach. The details matter:
    1) Abdullah Kurdi, the father, was detained for 5 months in Air Force Intelligence in Damascus. While in detention, he was tortured and his teeth were pulled out. He had to sell his shop in Damascus in order to bribe the officers to let him out. This cost him 5,000,000 Syrian Liras (around $25,000)
    2) After he bribed his way out of jail, Abdullah fled to Aleppo with his wife and sons, Alyan and Ghalib. The situation in Aleppo became dangerous due to the constant aerial bombardment, so he fled again to Kobani, his hometown.
    3) When ISIS attacked Kobani last year, the family could no longer live in their hometown, so they fled to Turkey. Once in Turkey, the Turkish government did not provide them with assistance, so they paid almost $6,000 to secure 4 spots on a rubber dingy to the Greek island of Kos.
    4) While on the boat, rough waters caused the boat to flip. The lifejackets they were given were fake. His sons and wife all drowned in front of his eyes, in his arms.
    5) Kurdi had applied in June for refuge to Canada, but was rejected. After Aylan’s photo became a media story, he was reportedly offered citizenship to Canada. But he doesn’t want to go to Canada or Europe anymore. He says he will go bury his family in Kobani and stay there to fight against ISIS, because everything has been taken away from him and he has “nothing to live for.”
    So if the world wants to no more Aylans on the beach, someone needs to do some combination of the following based on above: (1) stop torture and arbitrary detention by the Assad regime, (2) stop the regime’s aerial bombardment, (3) stop ISIS, (4) make traveling to Europe safe, (5) get Canada and the USA to accept more refugees.
    [http://notris.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/why.html]

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  5. (that’s not to say I don’t whole-heartedly agree with what you’re saying re: black/ brown people being shown in certain ways)

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  6. Interesting blog. Would like to respond to the paragraph that says:

    “Why are you wearing a photo of my uncle like that?”
    The answer is always the same: to raise awareness for human rights. It may sound well meaning but don’t be fooled by it. It conveniently overlooks that it is never white bodies that are worn or shown like this. Simply put, the bodies of people of colour are commodified for white gaze. They are used to sell t-shirts and newspapers and memes and clickbait. Their function is political and to push agendas. We are never allowed to just live.”

    Amnesty is one of the worlds leading human rights organisations. It’s worked on SOSEurope campaign, on OpentoSyria campaign and released MANY MANY docs on the situation in Syria. It uses photos that show the devastation of the situations and always seeks permissions in the form of written consent, from the families involved and generally aims to show the people born into these situations in a positive light.

    For example here’s the photo they ran today: https://www.facebook.com/amnestyglobal/photos/a.155782354434645.33609.111658128847068/1023366714342867/?type=1&theater

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