1. Do you usually share images of dead children on Facebook?
2. If there is a local/regional/national story about a child who drowned in a pool/lake/river, does the media usually show their body?
3. Do you believe the images of dead children "humanise" Syrian refugees or just shock you?
4. Do you believe all people deserve respect and dignity even in death?
5. Is there a better way to show you care about what is happening? e.g donate to Medicin Sans Frontiers, UNHCR, etc.
6. Do you usually share images of dead children on Facebook?
Pierre Bourdieu, in an essay on social functions of photography, applied Hegel's well-worn quote about philosophy to photography. "No other art or science is subject to this last degree of scorn, to the supposition that we are masters of it without ado". The same can be said of viewers of photographs. Unlike other arts or sciences, it requires little codified knowledge to judge, assess, and of course, share.
I posted the above six questions on Facebook, and received a range of responses. The most common response was what can only be described as a feeling of in-betweeness. People were left feeling both shocked and hopeful, outraged and rejected. Even those who have not seen the images. I have. Indeed, it was hard to not to seen them in regards to how Facebook automatically grabs images from the links shared to which you are automatically a viewer when scrolling down your newsfeed. The images of the dead Syrian boy seem to posses an inherent virality; a key message that would galvanise nations and communities.
The meanings that they embody, in the context of war, migration, and asylum, are, however, mixed. Just as it could and is used for human rights advocacy, it could just as easily be pulled into a discourse about safety, parental responsibility, and risk. Such a discourse has played itself out in Australian public debate and policy.There is nothing to stop meanings extracted from these images in support of a Stop The Boats campaign.
Tony Lake, the Exective Director of UNICEF, has appealed for shock to be turned into action. “But it is not enough for the world to be shocked by these images. Shock must be matched by action." What action? Some media outlets urge readers to donate money to particular charities and organisations. Others will send electronic petitions around. Some European governments are welcoming, others are warning.
What images are determined worthy of action? In 1991, an Australian photographer captured an image of a man's burned corpse sitting in truck. The photographer was in Iraq, which was being invaded by the U.S for the first time. The Iraqi soldier, the subject, was trying to pull himself out of the truck. It went unpublished by media outlets. In 2014, the New York Times initially published a photograph of a dead body of a female passenger at the MH-17 site. It later pulled the image and replaced it with only images of mechanical wreckage. The Atlantic questioned whether they should publish pictures of dead bodies. The author, Megan Garber, concluded,
"News outlets, the good ones, spend a lot of time thinking about the best way to present information as it unfolds; part of their thinking should respect the fact that images, once revealed, cannot be unseen."
Again, I recall Susan Sontag in On Photography, who said that photographs can, "alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have the right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing”. Viewers and non-viewers of the dead body of this young boy from Syria are engaged in an ethical choice, one that is almost forced on them by the interconnectedness and nature of our (social) media lives. It is a hard choice and often not even a choice we make. We should respect not only the image, but the subject of that image and his family. Once revealed, it cannot be unseen.