The power of a photograph

Column A: Ethics
Column B: Social Media Sites
Column C: Research shows how one devastating image totally changed how we talk about the refugee crisis

When I first read the title for Aamna Mohdin’s article called “Research shows how one devastating image totally changed how we talk about the refugee crisis”, I immediately knew which image she was talking about. The photograph of the young Syrian boy named Aylan Kurdi laying face down on the beach has become a symbol of the refugee crisis, bringing the severity of this issue to light most prominently to western societies.

Taken from Photograph: Reuters

This image is ubiquitous due to the power of the internet, and especially social media sites. Sites such as Facebook, twitter and Instagram circulated this heart-wrenching photo so much that I would find it shocking if you hadn’t seen this image previously. Mohdin even comments that this image “appeared on 20 million screens around the world in just 12 hours”; thus showing just how prominent the photograph is, yet also demonstrating the power of the internet and social media.

The circulation of this photograph can, to some extent, be due to the creation of Gutenberg’s printing press around 1440. This innovation resulted in the process of printing books and images that led to the circulation of a variety of different ideas and cultures. It can be said that this was the beginning of mass media, and with this photograph as an example, we can see just how much mass media has developed from the Gutenberg era.

With regard to Mohdin’s article, it is clear that this photograph made a huge impact on people who were unaware of the extremity of the Syrian refugee crisis. She goes on to say that after the photograph was widely spread, it “humanized the refugee crisis and spawned a number of hashtags… which people used to put pressure on their governments to respond”, and which also resulted in newspapers “softening their attitudes towards taking in refugees”.

This iconic photograph has clearly shown how one image can empower so many millions of people to use their own voices to bring change, to alter the racist stigma around refugees, and to protest for their government to welcome refugees to their country. Clearly photojournalism is a hugely powerful source that is able to bring change on a global scale.

However, the question that is still looming on my mind is, was the publication and circulation of this photograph completely ethical?

After seeing this photograph for the first time, my initial reaction was that of shock and anguish. I couldn’t believe that a photograph of such graphic content could be published and shared so widely.

It calls attention to the question that many journalists face; whether to publish this photo that is 1) an exploitation of privacy for both the young boy and his family, and 2) whether it is truly an appropriate photograph to be spreading. Or, whether to ignore the ethical considerations and publish the photograph, which would in turn bring to light the true realities of this horrendous global issue, that may hopefully result in aid for the refugees themselves.

This is a tricky question to combat when you’re a journalist, especially in the present day when a story, or in this case a photograph, can be so widely spread through the click of a button.

As Stephen Ward stated in a recent lecture about radical media ethics; journalists should avoid inflicting harm on their audience and subjects. In this case, the publication of this photograph is causing harm to not only the audience, but mostly to the family of Aylan Kurdi, as their son’s death has been circulated all over the internet, and seen by millions.

On the other hand however, it can be argued that by publishing this photograph -regardless of the harm it may do- the photographer Nilufer Demir was simply doing her job. And after all, there was nothing else she could do except for bringing this issue to the public’s attention, in hope that it would prevent a similar situation like this occurring again.

Of course being ethical is a crucial part of a journalist’s job because they have such a huge platform now due to the new digital age of the internet. However, this wide audience that they now have is surely also a benefit to journalists, because by looking at this photograph as an example, they are able to lead people to the truth, and bring about global change.