On the Photo of Aylan Kurdi and the Political and Moral Duty to Shock

Traditionally, memorialization has been a subdomain of history and, understandably, the artifacts of memorialization have had the impersonal enormity of the epic narration of history. Monuments are particularly good at showing the underlying moral tones of the national articulations of history. Elevated in statuesque immortality and materially magnified for the naked eye, the men of the state are stripped of their humanity and subjected to their putative moral persona. The savior of the nation, the liberator of the people, the father of the land.

Much like nobody can empathize with the tears of Bismarck–we ought to assume that at some point he must have shed some–monumentality is also complicit in the ignominious narration of enormous atrocities. The grey blocks of Berlin’s holocaust memorial, overwhelming as they are, reproduce the defacement of the victim’s dignity and, thus, of the individual meaning of the one life lost. Perhaps that is the greatest contribution of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It forces the atrocity of effaced humanity upon the visitor. It shows the terror of fusing the flesh and its particularities into featureless mass of lifeless cinder. But this comes at a price.

Perhaps it is the ignominious monumentality of suffering that makes the Stolpersteine such a remarkable object. From the floors of German cities, bronze cobble stones stand in front of residential doors forcing a name and the traces of someone’s life on the casual reader. The Stolpersteine have the uncanny ambition to liberate the tragedy from the yoke of the impersonal grand narratives of history and to emancipate the dignity of the individual memory and of its suffering from the effacing force of generic abstractions.

Therese Seeliger was born in 1900, she married Sack and took his last name. She lived on Artilleriestraße when in March, 2nd 1943 she was deported to IMAG0048Auschwitz where she was murdered. Not having seen her eyes, read the fear in her expressions or the dress she wore as she was being taken away, the stumbling stone hopes to trace those features and gestures to return that ghostly absence an inkling of its lost humanity. The humanity is not the symbol. The stone is.

Human beings are animals of sight and the stone can conjure images but cannot grant sight of Therese Seeliger. One has to wonder what may have been the result of showing the German people what their government was doing on their behalf in 1943.

But death and suffering are unseemly businesses. And by and large, the media has developed a false sense of decorum that has been of enormous utility to the politics of willful ignorance. The distance of good taste that conceals the emaciated body in Bergen Belsen, the broken limb in Serbrenica, the decapitated torso in Rwanda are alibis to political inaction. The disgrace unseen is merely a conceptual difficulty. One can hardly produce a mental image of a hundred people let alone that of two hundred and fifty thousand or of a million.

Last week, a photograph of the body of Aylan Kurdi which had washed ashore on a beach of Turkey,  gave the media a new opportunity to show the fact of the aylan-kurdidepth of suffering in the current migration tragedy. The articulation of the causes and the negotiation and attributions of responsibilities–the destabilization of a region, the financing of weapons, the lack of viable policies, etc–belongs to a mental exercise that may be of interest, nay, vital but does not address the immediate problem: human suffering. To convey the fact of that matter, we were given a potent tool: an unseemly image.  True ugliness is effective at portraying true ugliness.

And thus, a debate ensued in many newsrooms around the world. Should the photograph of the child’s body be published and broadcasted? And indeed the question is greatly interesting because a very broad set of ethical issues concerning the photograph and its use that germinate in this rare political soil.

Three of the main questions were spelled out by Deutsche Welle‘s Editor-in-chief, Alexander Kudascheff. Does the picture violate the dignity of the victim? Is the reluctance of the media to violate a sense of decorum a legitimate reason not to publish? Is the channel instrumentalizing the death at sea of the Syrian child to promote its brand and traffic to its outlets? Does it amount to sensationalism?

All these are important questions and I think that, without saying so, the editorial points out to perhaps the most important of questions concerning the use or suppression of the photographs. What does it say about who we are as media people and, furthermore, as a society if we present such unseemly sight? And, then, what does it say about who we are if we don’t?  In some sense, the picture and its use is not about the child, its about us.

Kudascheff’s answer is, in my mind, correct. We must present the image. But I disagree as to the reasons. As opposed to the Deutsche Welle’s Editor, I do not believe that we show the picture because it moves us. We rather show the picture because it interrupts violently the abstract distance of good taste and pretense that is an essential part of a political confabulation against the victims. Not only the refugees have no voice, we have deprived them of their very image and of the semblance of their suffering. This is one more conflict otherwise bound to be lost in the grand narrative of the endless number of conflicts of the early 21st century.

I also disagree with Kudascheff in his assertion that this photo “is a symbol of the tragedy of the refugee crisis”. Rather we must show the picture to show that the term “tragedy of the refugee crisis” is a symbol of individual forms of suffering. It is the grand narrative that is symbolic and the individual suffering, the particular death, the face of terror, the wet red t-shirt and the tears of the father that are the fact of the matter. The harsh soil of Kobane in which a mother and two children are buried is the harsh fact.

My argument remains that journalism is quite simply extra-curricular education and the duties and responsibilities of the educator remain virtually intact in the journalist. Journalistic ethics and educational ethics stand at close proximity. Knowledge of the fact of the matter is of the essence and the artful capacity to offer a contextual reading of the facts is what makes of an educator a great educator. But true brilliance comes from the capacity to transform the student into an interlocutor. This means, providing the tools of intellectual emancipation. Given the public the instruments to contest the very reading that was offered because indeed ‘an enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic.’

So yes, we will profit from the publication of the picture, we will increase traffic to our site, we will have part of the audience transfixed by the image of death and presumably it will improve our ratings even if marginally. We will also violate our sense of decorum and we will become the violators of the dignity of the child and possibly of the dead and surviving members of the family. We quite simply understand that we will profit form using this image.  And even if this is no more than emotional pornography, we will publish this at the cost of tarnishing our sense of moral goodness because we think that showing one of the faces, one of the hands, one of the arms, one of the millions of shirt that are the actual flesh of this conflict and of this crisis is one of the most important things that we can possibly do as media, that is, emancipate the public from the binds of abstract distance to deal as interlocutors with the ferocity of the human facts of the matter.  

Indeed, I would like to suggest that Europe must plant one photograph  so that in 60 years we don’t need to plant hundreds of thousands of new Stolpersteine. Even if this means obscuring our sense of moral purity. There is clearly much more than that to loose. And as the unfolding saga of the shift in the political identity of a continent that has gone out–albeit not painlessly–to train stations and streets to receive those who come looking for shelter shows, casting a million sufferings as individual strife is a matter of political good conscience and a sense of moral duty.  





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