Aylan Kurdi: What we can learn from the latest viral image

Syrian refugees' camp in Cappadocia, Turkey
Syrian refugees’ camp in Cappadocia, Turkey. Photo by Fabio Sola Penna. Some rights reserved.

By now you’ve probably seen the image of the drowned Syrian boy plastered across news and social media channels. The photo has elicited outrage, as much as for the crisis it represents, as for its parallels to poverty porn.

Yet much of life doesn’t allow us to classify something as pure good or pure evil. The truth is usually somewhere in between. We have to weigh the positives and negatives and learn lessons that can help carry us forward.

On one hand, the photo does draw attention to an issue that has simmered away and gone largely ignored for years. It puts a face on a complex, protracted crisis. And people are speaking out against it. As Anne Barnard and Karam Shoumali write, it does put a new focus on migrant and refugee crises. Not only has the image gone viral, but it has garnered enough momentum for petitions to be sent around offices and among friends. Some might even say that this photo marks when the Syrian refugee and migrant crises became personal.

But, this flurry of attention is also reminiscent of the viral Kony 2012 video and seems to mimic other forms of slacktivism. By sharing something on social media, many people find an easy way to feel good about themselves for a moment. They don’t have to worry much about context, causes, or solutions. They don’t even have to get out of bed. They click away, and then can peacefully get back to important things like which show on Netflix they’ll binge watch next.

This media attention also highlights hypocrisy and the dangers of poverty porn as well. As Max Fisher states, there is a tendency for these powerful images to become, “converted into just another piece of viral currency. There is a line between compassion and voyeurism.”

In the US, there have been outcries against the policies that keep Syrian refugees out, while the media and many Americans indulge and support Donald Trump and his xenophobic attitudes. The fact that the petitions to increase the amount of Syrian refugees will only put a bandaid on a gaping wound is another issue. It is also important to note the distinction between migrants and refugees.

But we shouldn’t halt this conversation at weighing the positives and negatives of images like the one of Aylan Kurdi. As storytellers in the aid sector, we can’t just dismiss the use of these images. We have to understand why these images and stories resonate with people. If we don’t, we’ll lose the opportunity to learn what draws people in to stories, and how we can do it better. In other words, it will be much harder to tell stories in a way will hopefully garner empathy while avoiding voyeurism.

Here is what we can learn from this:

People connect to personal stories

The story about the truck full of migrants found dead was horrifying. But the unfortunate reality is that it is easier for people to become outraged about one life that has a face and a name, than it is for them to become enraged by the loss of a large number of humans. Because that’s when people just become statistics. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t report on numbers and data (after all, context matters), but that it’s just harder to empathize with them.

The story is not lost in jargon or data

More in-depth news coverage supports his story with facts and data, but these stories don’t get lost in the data. When I see Aylan, I see my nephew. Another person sees his/her son. Another person sees his/her brother. These stories paint pictures with words so that the reader feels like s/he is part of the story.

What social media indignation barrages often miss

What the barrages of indignation on social media often lose, though, is the context. There are so many factors at play here: civil war, human trafficking, policies and politics, individual humanity, and more. And each of these factors has several factors underneath it.

Without a doubt, Aylan is now the symbol of the Syrian refugee crises. And he is one of many who has lost his or her life or livelihood. I don’t believe that we have to resort to voyeurism to share the other stories, but we need to make sure these stories get told, and told well. They need to be told in a way that creates understanding, empathy, and a call to action, without exploiting people.

Domiz refugee camp. Photo by IOM Iraq
Domiz refugee camp. Photo by IOM Iraq. Some rights reserved
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