Sunday, 17 January 2016

From Kim Thuc to Aylan Kurdi

The latest Charlie Hebdo controversy got me to thinking about Aylan Kurdi again and why it was that a photo of a drowned 3 year-old Syrian boy on a tourist beach in Turkey touched people all over the world in a way that equally heart-breaking images of dead and dying children had failed to do - and no doubt will fail to do in the future.  

It was an especially heart-wrenching image and anyone who was not touched by it at some level must surely lack some essential piece of their humanity.  But we know that around 8 million kids under the age of 5 die every year - that's 15 every minute of every day  - mostly of preventable causes.  We know that 4 million of these children die in their first month of life; that there are 2 million kids under 15 who have HIV, and that hundreds of thousands of kids are trafficked every year as sex slaves and sweated labour. 

We know this. Images of and information about the the world's sad little victims flow through our lives like a polluted river.

Given how many victims there are, and how few are ever known or have any real impact on others, what was it about this particular image that touched people in the developed world so widely and so deeply?

Was it because Aylan was dressed just like kids we see in our local shopping centre? Because the sea had not undressed him or abused his body?  Because he was lying as if asleep, his chubby cheek resting lightly on the sand, his little hands palm upwards, his little shoes still on his feet?  Was it because he looked just like what he was - a cute, innocent little kid - and in this shallow, fluffily abstracted world of ours, people have become conditioned to respond to cute? 

This anonymous starving African child was no less singular or important and very probably he was no less loved.  He felt no less pain and fear and misery -  he may have experienced more - but masses of people were not touched by this image in the same way as they were by the image of Aylan. This image never became iconic. 

In this iconic photo, a  9 year-old Vietnamese girl was fleeing from the napalm that was dropped on her village. She was terrified but looked unharmed. The terrible burns on her back were not visible to the camera.  The other children were no less terrified but no-one bothered to find out who they  were. The photo was cropped to highlight Kim Thuc who was later identified and became an anti-war symbol and eventually, an anti-war activist. 

Of all the photos taken of the horrors of that dreadful war, why was that one so powerful and influential? Of all the photos of dead refugee children, why did the one of Aylan Kurdi touch such a chord?

Perhaps it is because a particular image captures a moment whose time has come, because the influential people in the developed world are at that moment, able - maybe permitted - to relate to the human beings in the image, and importantly, because the conflict that harmed or killed those human beings, has directly touched their lives.  

In 1972 when the photo of Kim Thuc was taken, public opinion in the USA had turned against the Vietnam war and a year later the USA had withdrawn its troops, leaving not just Vietnam but an entire region, socially, economically and environmentally devastated.  It is interesting that the wave of public sentiment and outrage that was unleashed by this photo did not propel the anti-war movement into becoming a Reparations for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia movement.

In 2015 many Syrian refugees - unlike the millions of Palestinian, Iraqi and Libyan refugees before them -  have flowed towards Europe.  Their choice means Europe's roads are once again thronged with people fleeing war and that image of the three year-old dead on a beach turned a mass of anonymous humanity into real, suffering people. 

We all knew, before we saw that photo, that kids were suffering and dying as they and their parents fled from conflicts in the Middle East, just as we all know that the millions of victims of this badly managed world of ours are all around us.  We all know that, even in the wasteful, overfed, over-housed, over-dressed, self-absorbed developed world, there are people who are malnourished, homeless and destitute. 

For the most part, people who have an unprecedented ability to see the world they live in and to act on what they see, choose to close their eyes, their minds and their hearts to the horrors around them. 

Occasionally something provokes a response that crosses generations, races, religions and class and results in a mass response that seems to defy logic -  as if all the heart ache, the frustration, the outrage, the sense of the unfairness of it all - are encapsulated in, and summed up by that one moment. Normally feeling powerless in the face of the vast and brutal forces that control the world, people feel connected by a shared, emotional response to one particular victim and, by that connection, they may be motivated to try to do something to help at least some others. And that can only be to the good. 

But it is a strange and unpredictable thing - this outpouring of emotion and sentiment in response to a snapshot of a particular historical moment.

Sentiment alone can take us only so far. It's an unreliable fuel that runs out very quickly and leaves people feeling emotionally stranded somewhere between pity and guilt.  Ask those who are fuelled by sentiment alone to address the causes of the world's horrors and they will have no answers and sometimes not even the will to frame the questions. Ask them to step up and challenge the power structures and ideologies that create and perpetuate the horrors, and few will be motivated enough to take that leap.

Pity is a weak thing if not welded to the desire to make things better.

Guilt is a negative emotion that can be turned back on what causes it.

We only do justice to the victims if, after we have got over our shock and our sadness, we are left even more determined to do whatever it takes to change things for the better. 

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