SOME images are too awful to look at, yet we should keep our eyes steady. The photograph of Aylan Kurdi comes into that sad category.
Yesterday I could not bring myself to write about the body of the three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a beach in Turkey. Perhaps that was cowardice, who can say for sure. I looked at the headlines in the shop and for a moment took the detached view of a person long dipped in newspaper ink. The Independent front page stole the honours in terms of impact, with one deep photograph filling the page.
Many issues are stirred by these tragic images, not least the force of photography and the cold unwavering eye of those who take such pictures.
Inevitably there has been much comment about whether or not it was right to use such a photograph. The image is certainly powerful and powerfully upsetting. In terms of iconography, a big gentle man holds a small child, as if carrying him to safety. This should be about comfort and protection, but the man isn’t rescuing the boy, as the world now knows. Other pictures show Aylan lying in the sand as the waves lap his little body.
In attempting to escape his tortured homeland, Abdullah Kurdi lost his two children and his wife. The photographs of his three-year-old son being carried from the sea somehow encapsulated the long summer of troubled people trying to leave one place for another.
Whether we call these people migrants or economic migrants is surely beside the point; why not just call them refugees like we used to? There is a legal distinction in that refugees seek sanctuary from imminent danger, but what matters most is that they are people, and people who need help.
The problems are complex almost beyond belief, the solutions difficult to find, yet doing something matters. At times our own government has seemed to distance itself from becoming too directly involved. Today this position is shifting a little, as David Cameron bows to growing demands from home and abroad. Now he suggests that Britain will take more Syrian refugees.
The photographs of Aylan Kurdi surely had something to do with that, along with the scale of the gathering crisis. Throughout the day, I heard Cameron on the radio saying how upset he was by the photographs – upset as a father, he kept saying. An understandable response, yet surely one doesn’t have to be a father to be upset by the death of a young boy on a beach. One simply has to be a fellow human being. And I say that as a father (just to jump up there with David).
The photographs changed the public mood and intensified the feeling that as a country we should be doing more. And here is a reason why it is right to use such unflinching images: sometimes a picture just carries more weight than anything else.
As has happened before, sensible words were delivered by a man of religion. This is not the first time I’ve pointed this out from the confines of my non-believing ledge.
The Archbishop of Canterbury said the present emergency was a “wicked crisis”, adding: “We cannot turn our backs on this crisis. We must respond with compassion, but we must also not be naïve in claiming to have the answers to end it.”
PICTURES and photographers are on my mind for a different reason too. The newspaper I worked on for so long now appears to be cutting all of its staff photographers. Consultations are said to be underway, and we all know what that means and where it leads.
It is hard to imagine how a newspaper once famed for the quality of its award-winning photographs will cope without any photographers. Such seems to be the sorry way of things nowadays.
A good photograph is so much more than something snapped on a mobile phone, but try telling that to the people who make these decisions.
Heartfelt feelings go to these men, and mostly they have been men on that newspaper, I worked with for so long. I loved working with your photographs. Most days it was an honour to put them on the page.