A photograph of a dead boy, face down, lifeless on the edge of the surf on a beach*. An image that has circulated the globe.
This image has, in the last few days, changed the policy of Her Majesty’s Government. The newspapers immediately called on the Prime Minister to show more compassion, more humanity. The Government, it is said, has been shamed by the image into altering its Syrian immigration policy. President Hollande has declared that the photograph has made a call upon Europe’s conscience. If rhetoric is the art of persuasion, then this image proves that photographs can be a type of rhetoric. It is, in this instance, a powerful but problematic form of rhetoric. This photograph has for the moment de-politicised the cause of the movement of refugees across national borders. Humanity, shame, conscience, compassion – this picture has instead raised what should be political to the level of the human condition. It accuses nobody and everybody. We are required to respond to the situation not politically but emotionally. By demanding a powerful emotional response this photograph decreases our understanding of the cause of the problem.
Responses to photographs are more visceral than rational. Photographs, particularly those that reveal the suffering of children, can haunt us. An powerful image performs its alchemy much more readily than mere words. (Think of Nick Ut’s photograph of a nine year old, naked, fleeing girl burning from napalm in South Vietnam in 1972, one of the key images of the last century). Virginia Woolf’s phrase (about photographs of suffering from the Spanish Civil War) in Three Guineas (1938) should be bourn in mind here: “photographs, of course, are not arguments addressed to reason; they are simply statements of fact addressed to the eye.” The danger is that statements of fact addressed to the eye can eclipse other forms of understanding. This photograph evokes our sympathy, and sympathy proclaims an innocence: the innocence of those who state they are not accomplices to the cause of the suffering. It gives the illusion of consensus. The indignation aroused is, of course, bursting with good intention, but where the sympathy provoked compromises understanding any good done masks the problem.
Further the sympathy may actually be ersatz. Focusing on images of children’s pain carries the danger of arousing pleasurable emotions of tenderness in the viewer. This may be what Edmund Burke meant in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), when observing that people liked to look at images of suffering, “I am convinced we have a degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes and pains of others.” Is the sympathy invoked here merely a perverse self-satisfying feeling of sadness?
Emotionalism is no substitute for rational thought. The pain of others is best conveyed by narrative not images. What is needed is proper understanding and real political solutions not the marshalling of excessive emotion. The sympathy provoked here hides a failure of understanding, a failure of imagination. This difficult terrain (where the ethical and aesthetic collide) requires not more but less emotion, the intoxicating power of the visceral should be subjugated instead to narrative and to the rational.
The tabloid newspapers have performed their own reversal. In the months leading up to the publication of this image they wrote of cockroaches and swarms and floods of polluting migrants. They invoked the threat of biblical-type plagues. Now instead of moral indignation at the thought of migrants being let into the UK, they invoke moral indignation at the thought of migrants not being let into the UK. What have they leaned? The British Government has been shamed into accepting some more Syrian refugees. What has it learned? Members of the public have pledged money and help to refugee organisations. Social media has a # refugees welcome. But are we in fact nearer to understanding what is actually happening, or are we even further away?
*Aylan Kurdi a 3 year old Syrian refugee drowned, and then washed up on a beach near Bodrum Turkey; photographed at 6am on Wednesday of this week by Nilufer Demir of the Turkish news agency Dogan.