Moving pictures, pictures that move

An image is worth a thousand words. This saying has proven dramatically true with the death of Aylan K.. You quite certainly know his story: at the beginning of September 2015, this 3-year-old Syrian boy drowned while trying to flee with his family from Syria. The picture of his dead body on a Turkish shore was widely published, both through online social networks and on many (though not all) mainstream media all over the world.

The photo of this tragedy has caused a strong reaction all over the world, apparently bringing a U-turn in EU refugee policies. On 30th August – a couple of days before Aylan K.’s death – Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel called for a coordinated European reaction to the migrant issue, along France’s Hollande and other European leaders. This reaction has followed the discovery in Austria of a lorry with dozens of dead migrants. While Aylan K.’s death occurred after Merkel’s declaration, it is likely that it has reinforced its words and the engagement, especially among ordinary citizens, who spontaneously organised welcome points at the train stations or car convoys to fetch the refugees.

It has seemingly changed the positions of other politicians, such as Italy Northern League leader Matteo Salvini. He has gone from asking his party members to occupy any space used for “supposed refugeesto expressing his availability to host a refugee “who escapes from war” in his two-room apartment (see link, in Italian).

It remains to be seen whether these changes will last in time… But I have the feeling that both the news about the lorry in Austria and the Aylan K. picture have had an effect and a virality which was way stronger than dozens of courageous TV war documentaries, hundreds of impressive pictures from war-torn areas, and thousands of dramatic words in correspondences, both online and offline. So how did these two events within a week succeed where other ones over months or years have failed? Here are some possible answers and personal considerations.

Firstly these two events didn’t take place in a war zone. They happened in Europe and on a Turkish shore in a pretty well-known tourist area. This has probably increased the sense of proximity with the victims, thus affecting reaction and involvement.

Behavioural scientists have been analysing these decision mechanisms. They have identified a few aspects which trigger the reactions of people. One is called In-group Effect: we tend to feel more responsible for those who are near us, both as members of a group we feel we are part of (family, friends, fellow nationals, sports team supporters, etc.) or geographically near, which could be the case of the Austrian lorry victims. Another aspect causing people’s engagement is the fact that single, recognisable victims are more likely to cause emotions – and get help – than a wide quantity of undistinguished ones. Therefore one casualty with a name and a face will probably cause a wider reaction than the statistical data of thousands of deaths. The so-called Identifiable Victim Effect, thus, is likely to have been the reason behind such a strong response for Aylan K.’s picture. Moreover there could have been also a bit of the In-group Effect, as the child was dressed with ‘European-style’ clothing.

Research lead by Arvid Erlandsson, Fredrik Björklund, Martin Bäckström from Lund University in 2013, (Sweden) analysed the emotions underlying these mechanisms, suggesting how they could be used for money raising initiatives – but also in other forms of activism – either person-to-person or through media. So a child sponsorship is based on the Identifiable Victim Effect, whereas identifying a set of persons as part of one’s own social group employs the In-group Effect. They have also focused on a third mechanism which they call the Proportion Dominance Effect: aid is more likely to come if the victims are identified as part of a smaller rather than a bigger group. So, for example, it is likelier for a family of 5 people to get help if they have been identified as being part of a group of 10 rather than of a group of 200 persons.

It’s probably too early to say whether this picture will become part of the list of images which have changed history, or if it will have long-term consequences.

What I am pretty sure of is that Aylan K.’s picture’s case will not be easily forgotten – and his tragic death has hopefully served to give a better life to thousands of other refugees.

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10 Responses to Moving pictures, pictures that move

  1. Christopher Norman Kujat says:

    Very interesting choice, Adriano! The example clearly shows how pictures can go viral and have an impact via the Web. While the picture is surely not the only picture representing a dead refugee child, it is the one which reached the masses and a broad audience and therefore became “representative” for a bigger problem.

    • Adriano Pedrana says:

      Thank you Christopher for your comment. Yes, this picture has come (by chance?) to represent a big issue. I am still wondering whether there are some more reasons – other than the ones listed in the post – on why one picture ‘goes through’ the barrier of indifference, whereas another one does not.
      My feeling is that there is a lot of research going on on this matter, also because there are stakeholders with a lot to gain from it – namely the advertising industry and politicians.
      On the other hand, if the public gets to know how these mechanisms work, they too can be aware of possible manipulations – thus transforming them in a blunt marketing weapon.
      It remains to be seen whether this awareness will bring to an overall indifference to everything or anything…

  2. Eleni Maria Rozali says:

    Very interesting and thought provoking post, Adriano.
    Another noteworthy aspect of photography however, is the issue of context.

    As Stuart Hall eloquently put it, “what is out there is, in part, constituted by how it is represented.”

    In the age of social media, when you can share a piece of reality at a click, mainstream media finally found the courage to publish the shocking image of the young boy, and make him a beacon for the plight of thousands of displaced citizens.

    However, the setting that is implied for this photo and how it is interpreted need’s also to be taken into account.
    A certain ethnocentrism is evident in the understanding of this image; Young Aylan could easily have been seen as a European child by the way he was dressed, but even more so by the story behind him: a photo of his last birthday, of him playing with his parents. It what is implied by this boy’s story that provokes such an impression. In addition, you rightly argue Adriano, of the “In-group Effect,” where public opinion feel as if they identify or see themselves easily in the position of the victim is a valid point.
    Just the previous week hundreds of African children were washed up on the shores of Libya, but their images had no such impact. It is true that “A simple moment deals with an essential truth”
    However, public have a very short term memory an I fear that Aylan will soon be forgotten and together with him thousands of other innocent children, victims of cruel unjust wars.

    [1]Dogra Nandita, Representations of Global Poverty
    [2 &3] The Time

    • jennwarren says:

      Yes thanks Adriano for this thought-provoking article, and Eleni for taking the issue of “In-Group Effect” a little further.

      Adriano as you say, there is probably (hopefully!) research being done on this already. Maybe Aylan and his family have challenged people to think about their fellow humans a little bit more. Maybe Aylan has influenced the media to humanise their subjects and stores a little bit more.

      Aylan has already influenced the field of ICT4D, which you can see in an interesting new game I came across called CLOUD CHASERS that aims to raise awareness of what life is like for refugees.

      “Photos of a drowned Syrian boy on a Turkish beach splashed across front pages worldwide and circulated over the internet in early September. The picture of three-year old Aylan K’s limp body draped over the arms of a Turkish gendarme became an icon embodying the years-long plight of European migrants hailing from Myanmar, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and most recently Syria. The image resonated with the public, demonstrating the perils refugees encounter in their quest for safety, something that often gets lost in mass media coverage [1].


    • Adriano Pedrana says:

      Thank you Eleni for your comment.

      Aylan’s picture has succeeded in overcoming the “refugees vs Europeans” border – or binary opposition, as Stuart Hall calls it. Besides, we shouldn’t forget that the way Aylan is dressed is a side effect of globalization.

      You write that “mainstream media finally found the courage to publish the shocking image” of Alyan’s dead body, and you imply that this happened thanks to social media. I read this a bit differently.

      Mainstream media have published shocking images in the past (see the last link in my post) but they normally did it in exceptional cases, only when this was absolutely necessary. Today’s newspapers and TVs must run after social media, and so, in my opinion, many of them had to pull down the bar. A recent case was the murder of a journalist: some online newspaper websites decided to broadcast the video the killer took, only with minor cuts. I fear that part/most of Aylan’s picture success may be linked to morbid voyeurism driven by uncensored social networks rather then because the media staff thought it was right to publish it.

      When I wrote this post, I decided not to link Aylan’s picture exactly to avoid this. I saw its publication as lack of respect. I also read this as something against the journalists’ ethics.
      On a second thought, now I am less sure of my decision. This case could be considered as one of those exceptions to the rule, when the right of information is paramount. I sill have doubts, and I feel a bit relieved that many mainstream media outlet shared my same hesitation.

      This opens a whole new issue. The internet and social networks put journalism ethical regulation under stress – and not only because many (but not all) of its prescriptions concern only media professionals. Does it still make sense for a news programme to avoid citing identifiable information about victims of a violent crime, when any blogger could (and often does) give their names and surnames and even interview them or their friends? What’s the point for a newspaper not to give away the name of a suspect (innocent until proven guilty), when their picture (along with home address, phone number etc) can circulate freely over social networks? Are lawsuits against media professionals for breach of the ethics charter justified, when the same principles are neglected (actually ignored) by most of those who publish on the web?

      The mainstream media vs. social media dichotomy (or binary opposition) could be overcome through an hybrid. Many researchers call this participatory media. In the book Reclaiming the Media, Nico Carpentier, associate professor at Free University Brussels, warns that the concept behind the word participation is highly fluid – even empty.

      But that’s another story (maybe for another post).

      • Eleni Maria Rozali says:

        Thank you, Adriano for adding further to my thoughts. I totally agree with you that mainstream media opt were they want to shock to increase sales and where they want to wear their puritan facade. Social media in my opinion have made the news stream a lot more “raw” in it’s approach, because it is highly unregulated.

        Perhaps, participatory media, as Nico Carpentier puts it, is a perfect excuse for the Global North to once again exercise it’s hegemony over the infantile Global South, who needs to be taught technology and how to tell their stories?
        This could be the case in some instances … and makes a good research question.

  3. Very interesting implementation of behavioral theory, what emotions triggers people reaction in respect to a dramatic image of 3-year-old drowned Syrian boy. It reminds me of a nation of global solidarity presented by Fenton in (Cammaerts and Carpentier, 2007: 232): “morality of cooperation, the ability of individuals to identify with each other in a spirit of mutuality and reciprocity without individual advantage of compulsion.”
    On one hand participants online and offline, viewers, followers of the image are drawn together by a common feeling of shock, despair and unfairness, their common value system, political understanding of the problem, shared belief what should be done by the EU in regards to opening borders to Syrian refuges. However on other hand can mutual cooperation without individual advantage is possible to achieve? In fact there is no active participants of refuges themselves in digital sphere. Often they are portrayed as migrants taking advantage of the economic welfare system of European countries. It triggers discussions about empowerment of potential Islamic extremism, expansion of Muslims population ignoring European cultural values. Images, videos and interviews only misrepresent them. Also online activism can be seen as a feel good factor sometimes, but does very little actually beyond the signing petition or clicking (Kavada, 2005 in Cammaerts and Carpentier, 2007).
    It reminds me also of an iconic photo of Phan Thị Kim Phúc 9 year old child depicted in during the Vienam War on June 8, 1972.

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