Today, September 2nd 2020, marks 5 years since Alan Kurdi’s corpse shook the world. Some say his photo is one of the most influential in the world, the image of a 3 year old child limp and lifeless lying on a shore near the Turkish coastal town of Bodrum. If this were indeed the case, I percieve that influence as very small. I am thinking of the final stanza in Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘War Photographer’ as I write this:
A hundred agonies in black and white
from which his editor will pick out five or six
for Sunday’s supplement. The reader’s eyeballs prick
with tears between the bath and pre-lunch beers.
From the aeroplane he stares impassively at where
he earns his living and they do not care.
Kurdi’s story isn’t unique. It is the story of countless undocumented migrants crossing the Mediterranean, mainland Europe, Bangladesh ect. the list could go on forever. However, there is a visceral quality to that photograph, taking by Turkish journalist Nilufer Demir, of a child who looks as if he is asleep- and in some cases I hate to think it, but perhaps he managed to escape through that sleep. The stories of refugees even after they make the crossing are riddled with strife and pain. Detachment from their home and community, never ending insecurity- what is the value of ‘life’ in that case. Would it have been better for him to live in a world where his identity and past would haunt him? The value of a life lived is immeasurable if you ask me, and perhaps it is why photos, films and books about such experiences stay and haunt me.
I wrote a post recently on a documentary titled Sky and Ground, following a Syrian family’s journey to Europe. Theirs, though fraught with difficulty, is a successful tale- they join their family in Germany and can return to some semblance of normality. Kurdi’s short life, diametrically opposed that. His story has become one plagued by static voyeurism- people who look on with tears ‘pricked’ and then go back to their afternoon beers. What a world we live in. 5 years later and no justice has been served, the Kurdis of the world continue to die and we don’t hear about it. Even if ‘good journalism’ reached us on the topic I doubt we’d care, we’ve become so desensitized to violence and pain- it’s happening to ‘them’ not ‘us’.
Coronavirus has changed alot of things about the world, however perhaps the most profound has been the veil it has placed over issues that are constantly running in the background- an example being people fleeing from warzones and persecution. Perhaps a reason could be that now we feel as though since we are all being oppressed by the virus there is no need to draw attention to the voices of people who are caught in the crossfire of natural disasters, and man made conflict. First world problems will always be greater than those affecting the ‘Alan Kurdis’ of the world.
Is it bad that we have immortalised him, a child innocent of the political and violent intrigue which propelled the series of events that led to his death? Is it fair we have made him a martyr, over all the other people like him who are no longer with us? By focusing on one individual are we making the messy conflicts of the world easier to palate- is that morally just?
I was talking to my sister a few weeks ago on a topic similar to this , and (paraphrasing) she says she doesn’t like to think about the bad things going on in the world because they overwhelm her make her think to much, engulf her. That is a human response- and one I think adopted by most people. However this calls into question the meaning of justice. What does justice for Alan Kurdi look like? Is it individual, and found in remembrance, respect and support of his family members? Or is it larger than that and justice can be found in ending the oppression that caused him and those before and after him to die? The latter may seem unrealistic, and using that definition justice hasn’t and perhaps never will be served. Shall we stop then, give up the struggle and relegate dying to those on dingy rafts whilst we observe them with cameras and touristy journalists. Is there nothing more substantial we can do?