I spent ten years working on issues related to contemporary genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, including developing an exhibition on genocide that presented brief histories of Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Darfur, Sudan. Needless to say, I have seen a lot of images and video of the impact of violence on the human body. What always differentiated the Museum’s presentation of violence, I found, from news organizations or NGO presentations, was the deeply held understanding, resulting from the fact that so many people involved in the Museum’s creation and continued functioning were Holocaust survivors and the families of survivors, that any photo could be a picture of a deeply loved family member. The question of representing violence changes when scanning through the photos of people in extreme destitution and vulnerability in search of a familiar face.
This approach to representing violence and suffering is very difficult to live with. It is deeply painful. It does not provoke pity or self-reflection about “our” values or “our” actions; it is something much more piercing. I don’t think this impact can be replicated for those who are not searching for someone they love, aching for a glimpse of a grandfather, mother, uncle, aunt, or neighbor.
When it is not our community that has been caught in its moment of deepest suffering, another mechanism must kick in. Often, in the attempt to humanize a vulnerable community, pictures are presented that de-politicize—who cares if a man is killed because he took up a weapon in support of what he thought was his best chance, often calculated in terms of a very limited short-term future? That man is responsible for his condition, so we reason. The images designed to provoke the pity or empathy of a watching world are those of children and women, often presented as a single category that represents innocent suffering.
Innocence sells…even if it doesn’t sell enough to help everyone in need. Such photos instruct us to forget the complex political issues that sparked a conflict and that now serve to fuel and expand its lethal affects. Just open your wallet for the one simple thing we can all agree on: the innocent should not suffer. It is very easy to become cynical about the selling of innocence that reduces every crisis to the same repetition of humanitarian needs.
…and yet the photo of the little toddler, three-year old Aylan Kurdi, washed up on the shore, whose mother, Rehan, and five-year old brother, Galip, also died. Only his father, Abdullah, remains alive, a man whose grief is incomprehensible. This image—even if it is one more after thousands of others documenting death and dying at sea, many of them a direct consequence of the wars in Iraq and Syria—pierces.
But it cannot, as no photo can, tell us what to do beyond providing some solace to those in flight. Do this. Pour out support for the refugees and migrants, no one risks this flight unless they are hounded into the waters. Help them.
Also recognize that the impetus to flight is, in many instances in today’s spike of refugees, the war in Syria. This acknowledgement requires another set of responses.
If the insight has not yet sunk in after four years–fools, who think they can still get whatever they want if the violence just continues a little longer—let’s be clear: this war will end through a negotiated settlement in which no one will be fully satisfied. It will end with the defeat, as complete as is possible given the strength of the coalition created against them, of ISIS’s military capacity, and the engagement of all the international supporters of various armed sides in support of a mediated solution rather than a militarized one. And then the Syrians will ultimately agree to a resolution that no one will truly think vindicates their cause nor redeems the blood already spilled. The work of physically rebuilding the country, and, more importantly, creating a more democratic and responsive state will take decades longer—no matter what political dispensation is produced through a peace agreement. Fundamental social change takes time. The better Syria its population dreamed of will still need to be peacefully constructed.
This is obviously not an opinion contained within that image of a child’s body on the beach. Images do not tell us what should come next. But there are images that cut to the quick, and the image of Aylan Kurdi is one of those. In this case, I hope a photo does prompt recognition of both the profound human loss of each and every body washed up on shore and fallen inside the war zone, and the politics needed to change the situation.