Worldwide outrage was sparked after the publication of Nilüfer Demir’s now-famous photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying dead on a beach in Turkey. Across Canada, the image has appeared on front pages and been shared countless times on social media, accompanied by support for local aid organizations and calls for our government to do more to help refugees. But with Canadian, and international, news outlets reporting daily on the plight of Syrian refugees in the months leading up to the little boy’s death, why did it take a photograph of a drowned child to move so many to action?
A Globe and Mail editorial published on September 2 argues that “some upsetting images demand to be seen, precisely because they are a true representation of reality…And by the shock to our eyes, our conscience may be stirred.” This argument, echoed in many other publications, fails to explain why some upsetting images ‘demand’ to be seen while others do not. After all, no news outlet published photographs of the bodies of children killed in American school shootings as a means of increasing public awareness of gun violence in the United States. Even if such photos were published, how many of us would share them on social media?
We do not need photographs to recognize the humanity of North American children and the tragedy of their deaths — we already hold a basic level of respect for those children’s bodies, giving them and their families some privacy in their suffering. However, this is a courtesy we do not always extend to people overseas.
Although the publication of the photos of Alan Kurdi has led to important and productive shifts in the public discourse on refugees, it also reveals a troubling disparity in the way we engage with tragedy: that we value the humanity of those near us by default, but have difficulty doing the same for those suffering far away. Moving forward, how can we truly act in the best interests of refugees, Syrian or otherwise, unless we can recognize that each and every one of them is as real and as human as our neighbours?
Many students on our campus plan to go on to careers as policy makers, journalists, political analysts, and the like after graduating from; many more will be voting in a federal election for the first time next month. As such, we all have a responsibility to work compassionately, to empathize with refugees rather than pity them, and to make every effort to see the human face of the statistics and stories we encounter in the news, whether or not they are accompanied by photographs of pain and death.
Other people are suffering material consequences right now because of our collective failure to afford children overseas the respect, dignity, and empathy we hold for children at home. Canada’s slow response to the Syrian exodus is evidence enough of that. Since the start of the Syrian Civil War, an estimated 11 million Syrians have been displaced, every one of whom has a story and a family just as Alan Kurdi did. This is to say nothing of refugees from other nations or those still caught in warzones around the world.
As students, and as informed citizens, we can and we must do better. Take this time to reflect on your own responses to news reports on tragedies at home and overseas. Resolve to read the news compassionately, recognizing the value and humanity of every life lost. Ask yourself if Alan Kurdi’s death would have resonated with you as deeply had it been reported without photographs, or whether he, his brother Ghalib, and his mother Rehana would then have become casualties.
If we are capable of understanding without the help of photographs the magnitude of the tragedy when a child dies in our own country, then we are certainly capable both of feeling the same respect and empathy for children and adults overseas and of translating that feeling into action. No child should have to die for us to recognize their humanity.
Rusaba Alam is a third-year student at Victoria College studying English.