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Monday, 7 September 2015

End This Horror!

One picture that keeps on coming up in discussions connected to the Aylan Kurdi pictures is Nick Ut's 1972 picture of Kim Phuc screaming in pain after being burnt by napalm.

You read it again and again; how the Nick Ut picture helped end the Vietnam War, or contributed to the mood that ended the Vietnam War (and you can read that in the Sun front page from 1972). But perhaps we exaggerate the power of the media, and of photography.

Flicking through my History of Vietnam book, I see that in 1972 (when the picture was taken) the US only had 6,000 combat troops in the country, and that Richard Nixon was getting 60% approval ratings and that later in the year, the US mounted heavy bombing raids on North Vietnam. How does the effect of the image weigh up against that, or against the ending of the draft, or the Watergate trials or the 1974 cease fire?

I keep on looking for things that tell me of the effect that pictures have on policy but I can't find anything. I also wonder if  the TV footage which appeared on news programmes around the world (the Vietnam War was the 'Living Room War' after all) more influential than Ut's photograph in some ways? The picture has become iconic and is a great picture but was Ut's photograph  a kind of index to the newsreel.

This happens quite a lot. We remember old television through photographs and then a new memory overtakes us and the photograph takes on a life of its own and serves different narratives ( of reconciliation and forgivness in the case of Kim Phuc, and the upholding of the American conscience).

I wonder if that isn't what is happening with Aylan, but rather than being an index to the newsreel, he's the index to the social media storm. The pictures of Aylan were published at the end of a week in which a contemporary Trail of Tears from Turkey up to Germany became very visible on our TV screens. And Aylan became the symbol of this trail. A terribly sad symbol, one of childhood and innocence, that we can all sympathise with. It's not really an accident that a child became a symbol. His death is truly tragic, but so are the deaths of all those who have died and drowned, and been beaten, raped and tortured on their pathways from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Somalia and beyond.

The outpourings of emotions and statements of intent are really welcome and will result in some change or crystallise some form of policy, but we'll see. People can say thing and, full in the knowledge that we are a fickle public with short attention spans, do another.

For the past 5 years, in Britain at least, we have had cuts to education, welfare, health, and housing for asylum-seekers and refugees. People who have already reached these shores have been forcibly repatriated to face torture and abuse. All the major political parties have engaged in anti-immigrant and refugee rhetoric.

So perhaps a first step in having change in the UK is to restore those things that have been cut. But I don't think that's going to happen. I don't think that the sudden pro-refugee sentiments will last either. New pictures will come along, new stories, new outrages, the racist undercurrents will return and the Daily Mail and all the rest will click back to default mode. Aylan will become just another flicker on the social media landscape, the Kony 2012 or #bringbackourgirls for 2015.

I hope it doesn't end up that way but let's wait and see how things stand in two weeks', two months', two years' time. Time. Yes.

End This Horror!


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