It’s the pic­ture not the frame

Written by
Lyndall Stein
September 17, 2015
‘At that moment, when I saw the three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, I was petrified. [He] ... was lying lifeless face down in the surf, in his red t-shirt and dark blue shorts folded to his waist. The only thing I could do was to make his outcry heard.’ Nilufer Demir, photographer.

The tragic picture of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned child on a beach, is a vivid testament to the power of images to generate passionate responses. It has transformed the narrative around the world and delivered an extraordinary outpouring of empathy and action. Hundreds and thousands of people mobilised and showed their support for refugees by marching, campaigning and giving.

It challenges our own ‘rules’ not to use images of those who are dead and our concerns about images that might have an impact on the dignity of those portrayed.

Are we protecting Aylan Kurdi, or ourselves from his tragic story?

However this imperative to build positive images can work against our determination to build support for people affected by poverty, displacement and conflict.

We are caught in a bit of a bind – worried that people on the one hand are losing interest in development and then unable to find the vivid and compelling visual images that communicate the problems.

Visiting the offices of some international development organisations you might think you are in an upmarket travel agent – the images all jollity and lovely landscapes. Is this the reality of inequality, poverty and war?

The Independent has taken the decision to publish these images because, among the often glib words about the ‘ongoing migrant crisis’, it is all too easy to forget the reality of the desperate situation facing many refugees.
View original image
There have been many interpretations of the dramatic – and pitiful – photograph from artists all over the world.

We have a responsibility to bear witness; to reach into the hearts of our audiences and bring them closer to the appalling experiences of people living with poverty, oppression and violence.

Those who have seen, at first hand, the horror that a mother experiences when her child is near death because of malnutrition, who have seen the pain and terror of those affected by disease and the effects of brutality and war must continue to find ways to tell those stories to the world.

Most people have their own worries and concerns and need to have these visceral realties brought home to them with real passion.

Compelling photography has to cut through inertia and indifference and turn emotion into positive action; to achieve this we must use vivid, truthful, bold images

Important, relevant pictures, critical agents for change can be difficult and upsetting, we must not sacrifice the power of an image that is telling a story that matters and turn it into something well meaning but bland.

The iconic images, so essential to communicating brutality, inequality, conflict and poverty, cannot at the same time be expected to build a comfortable and positive narrative. We have to show the problem and the solution. We have to show people’s strength and power, but also the forces that undermine their potential.

Some of the most exceptional photographs I have worked with have been finely balanced and complex. They have communicated jeopardy, empathy and passion and have driven strong emotions: anger, compassion and even outrage. They have shown both tragedy and heroism.

The critical challenge for all of us working with images is to understand your message and your audience. We must work with great photographers, who understand the story, share our values and will work bravely to describe both the courage and resilience of poor people but also their suffering and their pain. We must have the courage to tell the truth however painful and uncomfortable.

The transformative impact of Aylan’s picture cannot be underestimated in changing the image of those seeking refuge. Its use, sanctioned by his bereaved father, shows us all the horrors the refugees endure with such courage in their search for safety and sanctuary.

About the author: Lyndall Stein

Lyndall Stein

For four decades, Lyndall Stein has worked with organisations that are dedicated to fighting injustice and inequality, the liberation of South Africa, the rights of people with HIV/AIDS, people struggling with poverty and homelessness. She was brought up with refugees from Nazi Germany, those fighting the wicked apartheid racist regime in South Africa, and those who had to flee fascist dictatorships in Europe. The courage and resilience of refugees is a cause very close to Lyndall's heart. The human story is always the key element that builds love and compassion from others.

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