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THE DECISIVE MOMENT
Why photographs of Alan Kurdi's lifeless body on a beach sparked outrage in a way words never could
'The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million is a statistic." The famous quotation is generally attributed to Joseph Stalin, largely because it seems the sort of cruel observation you'd expect from one of history's more infamous mass murderers.
Regardless of who said it, it came unbidden to not a few minds this week with the widespread publication of several photographs of the lifeless body of three-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi, washed ashore, along with those of his mother and older brother, on an Aegean beach near the Turkish resort city of Bodrum.
Newspapers historically have been squeamish about running pictures of a corpse on their front pages, whatever the circumstance. Not this time. Publications all over Europe and North America, including the front pages of the Sept. 3 editions of all three Toronto broadsheets (The Globe and Mail included), seemed to act as with one mind to give the tragedy prominent exposure. Many were drawn to one photograph in particular, that of the Kurdi boy lying face down in the beach, his little clothed body, watched over with obvious concern by a Turkish official, positioned poignantly more like a child at rest in a crib, as any parent can attest, than one gripped by rigor mortis. Its publication electrified audiences, seeming to jolt them out of what had been a kind of quiescent despair and dismay into a desperate empathy and determination. "This has got to stop." "Something must be done." "We can no longer stand by." "Alan Kurdi cannot have died in vain." You could, in fact, call it the photograph that brought Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander back to Ottawa.
Of course, more cynical (or should that be more seasoned?) observers were left wondering, "Why this fuss now?" The Syrian civil war has been raging for more than four years, claiming a quarter-million lives. Four million have fled Syria's borders. Meanwhile, Islamic State militants now control an estimated 50 per cent of the country's land mass. We're not talking about an under-reported catastrophe here.
All this, in fact, actually helps to explain the power of photography, or at least the power of one child in one photograph. The contemporary world certainly has never lacked for images, still and moving, of human suffering and disaster. But as critic and novelist Susan Sontag wrote in her influential 1977 book, On Photography, "a photograph that brings news of some unsuspected zone of misery cannot make a dent in public opinion unless there is an appropriate context of feeling and attitude." Creating that kind of context, building a critical mass, takes a lot of newscasts and editorials, teach-ins and videos, handwringing, exposés and fundraisers. The "genius" of a photograph, why it may be more memorable than, say, an iPhone videoclip or a well-argued essay, is that it's what Ms. Sontag called "a neat slice of time, not a flow. Each still photograph is a privileged moment."
Photography can have "a crystallizing force," Paul Roth, director of the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto, observed this week, "the power to distill a complex set of circumstances and ideas already in circulation but with only inchoate currency [into] an easily absorbed and deeply felt image."
Mr. Roth added that an image stands a greater chance of breaking through the clutter if it has "a visual trigger of some kind: the mirroring of a widely known visual motif – a modern pieta, for example – or the illustration of a widely held principle like the innocence of children." The image, too, has to be circulated widely and quickly, as Reuters press agency did with what Turkish photographer Nelilfur Demir shot of Alan Kurdi this week, to ensure a "sense of shared cultural experience, a feeling of standing together to witness something."
But can a photograph change the world?
Library of Congress
While there's no denying an image can be memorable, enduringly emblematic even – Mr. Roth cites Dorothea Lange's Depression-era classic, Migrant Mother, as an example – the overall record of photography's impetus for agency is mixed. Yes, a photo can draw the public's attention to a crisis and force a politician to respond in some way. It can, as Ms. Sontag once noted, "help build a moral position." Often, though, the impact is short-lived, the response ultimately cosmetic. "The fact that such responses are often meant only to defuse the problematic attention, not solve the underlying problem, is one of the key issues at work with this question of the power of the photograph," Mr. Roth said.
Occasionally a news photograph's influence proves far-reaching and long-lasting – Paul Roth puts Joe Rosenthal's unabashedly stirring image of the 1945 flag-raising by U.S. Marines on Iwo Jima in this rarefied category – but usually there is little ongoing or even retroactive impact. If there were, the photos of the liberation of Auschwitz and Buchenwald would have stopped the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, the horrific images from the first Gulf War of 1990-91 would have forestalled the start of the second 12 years later.
When Ottawa writer Denise Chong opened her Thursday copies of The Globe and Mail, National Post and Ottawa Citizen, each with its Demir cover, she immediately flashed on Nick Ut's famous, prize-winning 1972 photograph of Vietnamese villagers fleeing a napalm bomb attack. This response was a mix of the historical and personal since, in 1999, Ms Chong published The Girl in the Picture, a biography of the key figure in the Ut photo, a nine-year-old peasant girl, naked and burned, named Kim Phuc. (Ms. Phuc, now in her early 50s, currently lives in Ajax, east of Toronto.) "Working on the book I, of course, thought a lot about what makes an iconic photograph and, what I realized, it's not something that gains its power over time, it's something in the instant … It has something that concentrates the mind."
The New York Times ran the image on the front of its June 9, 1972 edition – but below the fold, in the bottom left-hand corner, in a small size and with only a caption. Nonetheless, it did mark, Chong said, "the return of the Vietnam War to the front page." At that time, the U.S.'s ill-fated military engagement had been going on for more than seven years. Everyone, Republicans and Democrats, were well and truly sick of the war even as President Richard Nixon, up for re-election that fall, continued to insist he could effect "an honourable peace."
Mr. Ut's picture certainly provided a jolt en route to becoming an emblem of the human cost of a war that, more than ever, seemed both unwinnable and unending.Yet as powerful as it was (and continues to be), in retrospect it wasn't as much of a "game-changer" as another Vietnam War photograph.
EDDIE ADAMS/The Associated Press
This would be Eddie Adams's shocking image of the chief of Vietnam's national police summarily shooting out the brains of a handcuffed Viet Cong suspect during the 1968 Tet offensive. Antipathy toward the war was on the rise by this time, protests were growing, but the scale and shock and awe of the Tet offensive put paid the notion being bandied by then-President Lyndon Johnson that "a corner was being turned" and America "was winning." For Mr. Roth, the merciless cruelty and futility condensed in Adams's image "can certainly be said to represent the turning of the public tide against the war."
Right now no one knows what lasting effect Nilufer Dimer's photographs of tiny Alan Kurdi are going to have on refugee admissions, global migration, European unity, Canadian foreign policy, sponsored immigration, humanitarian aid, the al-Assad regime. Their immediacy, their timeliness, is at once their strength and weakness. A strength because their very stillness stands as a sort of howl for action: everyone, at least at this moment, can find himself or herself on that beach in that photographic moment. A weakness because photos, finally, aren't blueprints, aren't solutions. Their impact lessens, other causes and other crises crowd in, and soon enough images that once seemed to embody the need and the promise of transformation fade from memory or turn into objects of contemplation.
James Adams is a national arts correspondent with The Globe and Mail.