On my bookshelf there is a book called Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain edited by Mark Reinhardt. It has been sitting there for many years unopened. I do not open it because the images are too awful, too confronting, too painful—and so I look away. Nevertheless, I have kept the book, because there is something about this dichotomy between extreme suffering and beauty that warrants further exploration. The question being, when is it necessary to look directly at suffering, and when is it time to look away? When is the proliferation of a distressing image advantageous to the cause of those suffering, and when does the saturation of that image leave us numb?
A few weeks ago I was reminded of this book, and its presence on my shelf. Images of a 3-year-old boy, Aylan Kurdi, drowned on a Turkish beach swept through social and news media across the world. It quickly became a symbol of the refugee crisis, and has engaged and outraged people in a way that no asylum seeker debate has otherwise been able to do. In the Australian parliament the image has been used as an emotionally laden political tool, with both sides of the political spectrum siting the plight of Aylan in defence of their individual policies. Each side attempting to outdo each other in compassion, or lashing out at those who are (in their view) responsible. Days after the release of the photograph then Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, announced that 12,000 additional refugees would be offered asylum—a move that would have been unthinkable weeks before (see The Economist and The Age). Similar shifts in policy has been seen in Europe and elsewhere. The image changed public sentiment towards Syrian refugees on a global scale. In response to the images of Aylan, an almost immediate public outcry shifted something in the politics, in the media and in the everyday discourses surrounding asylum seekers. They became human; they became a small lifeless child, who died a terrifying death (along side his brother and mother, who are barely mentioned). Before the image refugees were largely seen as the ‘Other’—queue jumpers, illegal boat people, potential terrorists, potential bludgers, beheading mysogynistic arabs… However, the majority of people who saw the image of Aylan would be parents, grandparents, uncles, aunties, neighbours, cousins, carers, or friends of young children, and something has to break inside us all when we look at a dead child washed up on a beach.
The photograph has been compared to other powerful images that have in the past century helped shape the course of history, such as the image of a naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack. Though many thousands of children have died fleeing various crises, and these casualties are often cited in news reports, the impact of an image can be far more influential than words and numbers. It has been suggested that the reason this particular image has been so immensely powerful, is ethnocentric in nature. Other recent images of drowned African refugee children did not illicit a similar response. However, this little boy is light skinned, and wearing sneakers, shorts and a t-shirt—in other words, it has been easier for the predominantly light-skinned audiences of Europe, North America and Australia/New Zealand to identify with the suffering. In addition mages of Aylan alive, photographed as a baby or smiling next to his brother, have accompanied the beach photograph. The realisation that “this could have been my child/grandchild/nephew” has touched an intensely raw nerve; one that needed to be poked, and poked hard. Many newsrooms were in doubt whether or not to publish the photograph, especially as a cover story. As the vice president of Getty Images stated: “…a picture of a dead child is one of the golden rules of what you never published”. However, for something to shift this picture had to be shoved in the face of the widespread apathy towards the refugee crisis, and general contempt towards asylum seekers.
Coming back to the book I mentioned in the beginning. It is easy to identify the suffering in the image; but where does the beauty lie? The impact of the image could be described as beautiful. There is beauty in the fact that this image has had the capacity to instil more compassion and humanity into the global politics, media debates and public sentiment surrounding refugees. The beauty also lies in the image itself, in the simplicity, in the stillness, and the immense power of the sorrow that it instills in the viewer. In a different setting the little boy could be asleep. In our cultural imagination a southern European or Turkish beach is a place of holidays, sun and family fun. A place of beauty is transformed into a place of the worst kind of suffering. However, whatever “beauty” the image holds only exists when seen with fresh eyes; when it stirs something deep inside us. The reason I have not placed the picture in this article, is that I do not want to see it repeatedly. I know that the more times I look at it, the less I will feel; and the less I feel when looking at that tiny body, the less human I become. Picturing the photograph in my mind, rather than viewing it continuously, keeps the intensity alive, keeps the emotions raw. When I feel sorrow by thinking of the image it remains “beautiful”, because I need to feel this compassion. If I become numb when viewing it I am an accomplice to the suffering.
Part of the reason this image has had such a powerful effect, is that it was shared quickly and extensively via social media. This is has proved beneficial, because it has meant that many more people have seen it. As a result many more people have been appalled and deeply touched, and have hopefully felt a keener sense of compassion, and a more acute awareness that something needs to happen to help the increasing number of refugees in need. However, there is also a danger in the mass distribution and repeated sharing of an image like this. When something goes “viral” as this image has, it both grows in immense power by the sheer number of people it reaches and touches; and it simultaneously looses impact on a deeply personal level as soon as the image has been seen by an individual 2, 3, 5, 10, 20, 50 times on television, Facebook, news feeds, and in newspapers. This is the nature of saturation, it will gradually leave one a little more numb each time it is tweeted and flickers across ones screen. On the internet there are now countless versions of the image. Some have changed backgrounds, where the little body has been cut out and pasted onto a another image, for example lying on a bed or lying amongst politicians in parliament. There are others where he has been drawn with the now characteristic red t-shirt and blue shorts surrounded by whales and dolphins, held by an angel, surrounded by toys, placed on a map… Many of these are created with the best of intentions, but I cannot help feel that a little of the humanity is lost every time the image is reproduced, and reproduced, and reproduced. Until the viewer intellectually feels outraged, but does not really feel that deep sorrow they initially felt when they imagined their own child lying there.
Am I any closer to opening the book, or to understanding the dichotomy of the words “beautiful suffering”? My conclusion is that pictures of suffering play an important role in shaping public opinion, and in extension in shaping the language and policies of politics, and the tone of media debates. An image such as the one discussed above can be immensely powerful, because it is immensely uncomfortable to look at. It can therefore be immensely beautiful, because it stirs us in the deepest way; because it may bring us to weep for children drowned that we would otherwise have experienced as statistics. Therefore the photographer is to be applauded for taking the picture, the newspapers are to be applauded for showing it on their covers, and the public is to be applauded for sharing it online in outrage. When faced with such an image it is crucial to look at it, really look at it, and feel all the emotions that it evokes. Then the crucial lesson is to know when to close the book, to know when it is necessary to look away. Because a time comes when seeing the image again and again will start having the opposite effect; leaving us a little more numb each time. In other words, we must fling the book open, look intensely, and then look away to preserve that acute sense of compassion and humanity, so that it may be channeled into constructive action.