John Mullin: A telling picture for us all

The news photo of Aylan Kurdi used by The Scotsman presented a disturbing reality while seeking not to offend. Pictures: AP
The news photo of Aylan Kurdi used by The Scotsman presented a disturbing reality while seeking not to offend. Pictures: AP
Have your say

Photographs of the lifeless body of little Aylan Kurdi have prompted the sort of reaction that only great images can evoke on a political and personal level, writes John Mullin

IT’S one of the earliest things we imbibe, along with crossing the road properly, or our times tables, or doing joined up letter writing – that old saying: a picture tells a thousand words.

Robert Capa's picture of The Falling Soldier retains its power despite now being the stuff of exhibitions. Picture: AFP/Getty

Robert Capa's picture of The Falling Soldier retains its power despite now being the stuff of exhibitions. Picture: AFP/Getty

Newspaper editors like to deal in such essential, simple truths. Though they might affect otherwise, they tend to be rather straightforward people, and a great photograph is – and always has been – prized above all else in print.

Perhaps strangely, with the internet age, the era of 24/7 rolling, TV news coverage and the rise of citizen journalism, the single, stark, still image has an ability to connect in the way video, shaky or otherwise, fails to do. It’s about cutting through, of delivering the key message amid white noise.

Think of Robert Capa’s snap of The Falling Soldier, a republican fighter caught at the moment he was shot during the Spanish Civil War; the lone protester before China’s tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989; the Iraqi prisoner, masked and with electrodes attached, at Abu Ghraib prison.

There are brilliant photographs landing on picture editors’ desks all the time. Those that dominate coverage of an event – and, crucially, that can signal a lasting change in public opinion, and so force political change – are rare.

The stark image of the Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the nine-year-old Vietnamese girl running, naked, after US forces have napalmed her village, is perhaps the acme of all of these. It is an amazing image. But would we still remember it now if it hadn’t sparked a transformation in the views of the American people towards the Vietnam War, and a change of approach from the White House?

Twenty years ago, at the Guardian, we published on the front page the distressing image of a young woman who had hanged herself near Srebrenica in the aftermath of Serbian forces massacring 8,000 men and boys as the UN stood by. The Balkan War did come to an end soon after, but we’d be hard pushed to argue our photo played its part in the way that Huynh Cong Ut’s one had in Vietnam.

All summer, the refugee crisis on Europe’s borders has lurched on – occasionally achieving what media folk might call break-out. When the first migrant boat goes down with the loss of 500 lives; or the Greek islands we all know from holidays become the new favoured arrival point; or thousands congregate on the border between Serbia and Hungary, or at the closed station in Budapest, there is a renewed upsurge in public interest. Then, inevitably, it fades, and the politicians are free to resume their platitudinous hand-wringing.

This humanitarian crisis has provided plenty of awful images. But nothing to what we have seen this week.

The lifeless body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, from Kobani, on a beach near Bodrum, in Turkey, is surely the starkest photograph so far. And it has set the political discourse and public debate raging in a manner that hundreds of thousands of words, however well-crafted, cannot.

Aylan was one of at least 14 Syrians who died this week as they attempted the three-mile journey to the island of Kos, swept off the flimsy dinghy the smugglers had provided almost before the journey began. The others who perished in these desperate circumstances included his mother and his five year-old brother, Galip.

There were two distressing images of Aylan, which many papers, including The Scotsman, understandably chose not to publish on their front pages.

One was of a Turkish policeman tenderly carrying the boy from the beach. His body is lifeless, and face obscured. Many papers did use this image on their front page on Thursday, and it featured on TV news bulletins too. But there is an earlier, more harrowing picture. It shows Aylan, in his red shirt, blue shorts and Velcro shoes, on the edge of the sea, with the waves gently lapping at his face. He was for all the world like a limp human rag doll, the same policeman approaching the body, shoulders slumped but his resolve braced. Only my old paper, the Independent, published that one on its front page.

It is one of the oldest tensions for a newspaper editor. Whether to publish, and risk offending readers over their cornflakes, or to find something a little less shocking.

It’s easier for some papers than others. When I was editor of the Independent on Sunday, after deciding against using some of the worst images from one episode on the West Bank, I asked readers to write to tell me whether I could show dead bodies on the front without being gratuitous or causing offence. I got a hefty mail-bag, all supporting the idea.

And yet next time, though I wanted to provoke readers’ anger, I too balked when hundreds died in a government attack on Aleppo in Syria. The images were of lifeless kids huddled together, and, unlike Aylan, the reader could see their faces in gruesome death pose.

I came up with a cunning plan: to use the images on page three, but to make a point of it, even, to get two hits at the same time, to make a political point, and to challenge our readers.

We ran a words-only front-page about the Syrian crisis, and how the world’s leaders were turning a blind eye. We invited readers to turn the page and view the effects, with the banner headline challenge: Will you too look away?

It got a good reception. I had to go on the radio to defend it. But perhaps I was guilty of over-thinking. If I were in the editor’s chair there now, I’d have used the image of Aylan in the waves.

The power of the Aylan pictures lies not just in themselves, but because his father, Abdullah, survived the capsizing, to speak about his family, and because earlier photographs, of the type we all have in our family albums, exist. That unleashes real empathy, and, while some of us might have listened with half an ear to harrowing tales before, we now pay real attention to Abdullah Kurdi.

The politicians can usually withstand all the hand-wringing words we journalists write. They find it harder to bluster past images like these, and the anger they rouse in people who are otherwise too busy to plough through the arguments, but who can see in an instant something terrible is wrong.

David Cameron even looked a little scared as he sought to defend his government’s approach. As tens of thousands of refugees escaping Isis appear on Europe’s doorstep, our contribution has been to resettle just 216 of them from Syria. Really? Aylan’s graphic death will make sure we do better. It is up to us to remember it, though, and to make sure the politicians follow through.