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Sharing a photo of a dead Syrian child isn’t compassionate, it’s narcissistic

3 September 2015

11:48 AM

3 September 2015

11:48 AM

Have you seen the dead Syrian child yet? Look at his lifeless body. His head buried in the sand. His sad, resigned posture after he and his family made the treacherous journey from Syria to Turkey only to wash up dead on a Turkish beach. Isn’t this just the saddest photo you’ve ever seen? And gross too? Quick, share it! Show it to your friends — on Twitter, Facebook — so that they will feel sad and grossed-out too. Gather round, everyone: stare at the dead Syrian child.

We all know about the problem of sexual pornography on the internet. Now we need to talk about the problem of moral pornography. And nothing better illustrates it than the photo of Aylan, a three-year-old Syrian who drowned alongside his five-year-old brother Galip, his mother and others fleeing the hell of Syria.

The global spreading of this snapshot — which appears on the front page of the Independent today and inside the Guardian, and is even callously being turned into a meme by sections of the weeping Twitterati — is justified as a way of raising awareness about the migrant crisis. Please. It’s more like a snuff photo for progressives, dead-child porn, designed not to start a serious debate about migration in the 21st century but to elicit a self-satisfied feeling of sadness among Western observers.


Yes, I’m shocked by that image. (Though anyone surprised that people are literally dying to get into Europe clearly hasn’t been paying attention: between 1993 and 2012, there were 17,306 documented deaths of non-European migrants, and since then thousands more have perished.) But I’m also shocked by the cavalier way in which the image is being published, tweeted, retweeted, pored over, turned into an online ‘trend’, made into the subject of watercooler blather (‘You haven’t seen it yet? Here, look, it’s on my iPhone.’)

Did the newspapers who put this kid on their front pages contact his remaining family members in Syria to seek their permission? Doesn’t look like it. When it comes to producing moral porn for the right-on, it seems the normal rules of journalism — and civilisation — can be suspended. And he’s only Syrian, right? It’s not like his poor, war-battered next of kin will be looking at the internet. Except the Guardian has now discovered that he has family in Canada, so they will very likely see the photo. Oh well, no matter: crack on, publish it, marvel at the purity of your emotional response to it, and be sure to tell everyone what your emotional response was. ‘I cried so hard’ thousands of tweeters are saying. The operative word here being ‘I’.

There’s a tradition of pushing victimised or dead kids to the front of news reporting. And more recently they’ve been given a starring role in the Twitterati’s handwringing over global calamities. From those famous images of half-starved children in Ethiopia in the 1980s to the ugly fashion for sharing photos of dead children from Israel’s attacks on the Gaza Strip last year, the sad or hungry or dead child has become a substitute for serious analysis or rational commentary. It shuts down discussion.‘You don’t think Israel is evil? Well, look at this photo of this blown-up Palestinian kid.’ It’s cheap moralism, emotionalism taking the place of thoughtfulness.

The desire to circumvent serious debate in favour of eliciting the visceral but ultimately pointless ‘Oh Jesus Christ’ response is clear from the fact that these photos are often cynically cropped to exclude adults, in order to accentuate the vulnerability of the kid. Rather than focus on drowned adults, the Guardian and the Independent have instead focussed only on Aylan’s tiny, pathetic body.

The photography expert Patricia Holland wrote about this in the 1990s. She said the focus on kids in disaster or war zones was, weirdly, about making Westerners feel good: ‘As the children in the image reveal their vulnerability, we long to protect them and provide for their needs. Paradoxically, while we are moved by the image of the sorrowful child, we also welcome it, for it can arouse pleasurable emotions of tenderness.’

This narcissistic search for outlets for our tenderness has increased a million-fold with the dawn of the internet, when not only can we gawp at more images of destitute, destroyed kids, but we can republish them too, signalling our virtue and emotional sensitivity. But showing dead kids is, in my mind, emotionally insensitive. It can be cruel and unnecessary. It’s the victory of the visceral over the rational. And we really need a rational debate about the migrant crisis, rather than people holding up a dead-child snuff photo and saying: ‘I cried, therefore I’m good.’

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Show comments
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  • Xavi Wu

    You stupid motherfucker. Did you even bother to do any fucking research regarding the child’s death and the death of his brother and mother? Did you even look at the the video that his father was featured in when talking about this?

    What you are doing is complaining like a little prat who happens to be afraid of the orphan your parents have taken in out of the good of their heart. Quit with the ‘boo hoo refugees are being saved that’s not fair’ and go fuck yourself.

    Good day sir.

  • James Lee

    we are definitely not compassionate. Our tax is funding ISIS through our tight friends in Saudi Arabia. Sharing this boys photo reminds us how cruel our governments are. maybe our conscience gets a poke to wake up.

  • Chris Blanchett

    Ah, I get it! Only editors and reporters are allowed to decide which stories are newsworthy or not. Is that right? Where do you get off claiming the moral high ground when we, the general public, have every right to feel horrified at the sight of a dead 3y/o on a Turkish beach.
    Maybe if you reporters actually reported the truth in all it’s gory glory we wouldn’t find such photos so shocking that we need to share them. Maybe, just maybe, if you DID publish pictures of people with their heads blown off our leaders might just sit up and take notice of it and do something to prevent it happening.
    Or shall I just go back to my fish & chips and s.t.f.u.?

  • maggieinmiami

    What a crock of bullshit you write. This is the news. People died trying to find a better life. And look at the political reaction this photo brought. This war is not just Syria’s war. It is for everyone and especially people in Europe. I believe this is a conservative publication. As for blaming parents for putting their children into a dangerous vessel—read the news stories for heaven’s sakes….they paid for and expected a more secure vessel but upon arriving, it was a rubber raft. Perhaps they should have waited but they had paid to escape death by bombings or hangings. If ANY ONE OF YOU had to make a choice: be bombed to death or hung by ISIS or take a pitiful rubber raft in hopes of having a chance….I’ll bet you would choose the latter. As for having a good cry and that makes you feel better—that must be you you are talking about, all you who think this photo is in poor taste. It’s a human tragedy and it’s more tragic that it takes this much—a photo of a drowned child—to move governments to action and to inform all people that this is bigger than one country and one dictator holding onto power….this is a HUGE GLOBAL shift of people all over the globe right now and we had better pay attention.

    • Richard

      So if I want a better life, I should just climb on a boat and go somewhere? Most of these people are not refugees at all, but economic migrants, paying thousands to go somewhere so that they can have more money in free healthcare and social handouts. There are hundreds of millions of people living in abject poverty all over the world, whom cameras never see, who create their own misery a lot of the time, who have unsustainably huge families they have no hope of feeding. People have to take responsibility for themselves and their own countries. During WW2, people in Britain endured a huge amount, and fought back. They didn’t run away, but stood and fought. These people don’t, that’s why their situation never improves. They just run to white people from the Middle East and from Africa, whom they despise, to get handouts. These are not minorities targeted as Yazidis have been (by the way, did you write letters about them to the press?) or Jews were. These are young male Muslims, able to make a stand, but who don’t. During WW1 and WW2, people in Britain who did that sort of thing were called cowards and had white feathers put in their jackets. It is not up to anybody else to solve their problems but themselves.

      The only global shift is from African and Asia to Europe and the US who are soft touches. We will cease to exist, and Africa and Asia and all of their myriad problems will continue, because they don’t have the will or the brains to sort them out.

  • Johnny Dangerous

    Liberals are a disease upon Western civilisation, champions of those who hate and wish to destroy us, self hating as a thinly veiled cover for society hating, pro extermination of the old, the sick and the unborn and more than willing to delight in the photo of a dead child killed by his Father’s reckless and foolish attempt to cross a sea on an airbed from Turkey (a holiday destination) into the EU with hopes of free dental care. Anybody who takes the image of a drowned baby and uses it for their own political aims is sinister and corrupt to the very core.

  • Mr. Cadillac

    The latest news is that the photo was faked in order to deceive the public.

  • Stephen Bennett

    I am genuinely shocked by this article. Whilst there is a shred of credibility to the possibility that some are poring over the photo for their own visceral greed, there is no doubt that the greatest affect this has had is on turning an abstract humanitarian crisis into an almost palpable reality for everyone who has ever loved their children.

    You say:
    “…showing dead kids is, in my mind, emotionally insensitive. It can be
    cruel and unnecessary. It’s the victory of the visceral over the

    We have had rational. We have discussed attacking Syria – or not, as the case may be. We have crunched the numnbers; we have considered our infrastructre. All the while people have been dying. Ordinary people, like me and you. Who have hopes, dreams and aspirations; who laugh and cry and yearn for better.

    If this tragic image has allowed SOMETHING to happen to help these people, then that is a good thing.
    If you cannot see that, then you are part of the problem.

  • David Hughes

    The parents are to blame for not buying a ‘cheap’ life jacket for their children. All this emotional blackmail is designed to increase the circulation of newspapers like the Daily Mail.

  • Armchair Hero

    The image brings home in a very effective way the suffering that those poor people are going through. At least now there will be a few more people who will be a little less judgmental of “asylum seekers” than they were before. At least temporarily it will contribute to a slightly more measured debate about migration and foreign policy than the usual tabloid fear mongering. Ultimately a little kid has died because his family were desperate to escape man-made disaster around them. He’s one of many that have suffered. Being affected by that picture doesn’t make me better or more sensitive or nicer than anyone else, but at least it helps to communicate a serious problem that many (including me) are quite desensitised to. That doesn’t damages the debate on migration, it only helps to raise its importance.

    • Richard

      I thought the father wanted to get his teeth fixed? Weren’t they already safely living in Turkey?

      • Armchair Hero

        The bizarre teeth story again. His family fled from where they were living because it is a war zone. They’ve probably lost all their possessions and presumably are desperately living off whatever savings they managed to bring with them. I bet they hadn’t packed the kitchen sink and a Louis Vuitton suitcase on that overcrowded boat. Yet you lot are just looking for an excuse to give him no sympathy because of your preconceived political agenda.

        • Richard

          There is an interview with his sister available on YouTube. I suggest you take a look. It’s not hard to find. I wonder where you get the “no sympathy” bit from? Maybe it’s like tarring everybody with whom you disagree with names?

          • Armchair Hero

            Well I’ve just watched the interview posted by cbc. The teeth are mentioned, but only as an aside as symptom of their situation – as a sign that they might not be able to get medical care for other issues. On all sides of the debate it is acknowledged that they were refugees that had been forced to leave their home due to war. If that happened to you, and you ended up in a camp in France, you would probably feel powerless and destitute and end up taking desperate measures too. Regardless of the condition of your teeth.

            • Richard

              Why would you mention the teeth in that situation at all? She probably self-censored after realising how it would sound. If people are really leaving a safe place, Turkey, to travel to the EU, you can bet that telling people it was for the sake of teeth would sound bad.

              • Armchair Hero

                Reading meaning into the way that the teeth were mentioned is a matter of speculation. However, we have facts that we all agree on – they were forced to abandon their homes and possessions by a war. How would you feel if that happened to you? I imagine you’d feel disillusioned and desperate, and would do all you could to get to any settled family support that you could find. Think how justifiably upset we all felt when 7/7 happened? These people have seen horrors of that scale hundreds or thousands of times over. Talking of them being economic migrants, or being foolish for attempting to cross the sea, or wanting to see a dentist completely misses the point. Judge him when you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.

  • jaz

    Is Brendan O’Neill *still* doing that “I dare say the things others won’t” schtick? I bet he still trying to call himself “left wing” as well.

  • gélert
  • ABC

    Standing ovation. This photo is used to push a socialist agenda in Europe.

    Allow me to say I did not feel anything when I saw the picture. I am catholic, I am a healthy human being… and the first thing that came to my mind with the picture were the strings of someone behind curtains trying to manipulate me.

    If you are sad for this dead kid, here:

    Donate to Caritas.

  • WarriorPrincess111111

    The Body Farm is an American Institute for Forensic Science, dealing with every type of composition of bodies found in various conditions. The composition of a body immediately after death is that the blood no longer obtains oxygen and the cells break down. This is a much faster procedure if the body is in warm, sea water. The body takes on a grey/blue waxy appearance, and after a few hours there appears a very dark red area on the side of the body facing down. Due to the breakdown of gases in the body – the body becomes swollen, showing evidence of blisters – and if immersed in water has a milky film all over the skin.
    The Aegean sea on which Turkey lies – contains several species of voracious fish among which are the conger eel and others. These will attack any animal within the sea, even if it is much larger than their own size.

  • Daniel

    I understand the point being made and even agree with it, in a way, but not the same way in which I think it was intended. It is true that emotions have far too great a pull on popular sentiment and the actions we take to address problems in the world, at the expense of rational consideration. But at least from where I sit – and I’m in Australia, so your mileage may vary in different contexts – the problem is not that people are being too moved by images which touch on their emotions but rather that their capacity to understand the true human nature of the problem has been blocked by a long-running, deliberate, and extremely effective campaign to dehumanise the issue altogether. In this country, an image of a drowned human child named Aylan doesn’t distort the issue – it actually repositions the focus back onto the true nature of what is meant by terms like “asylum seeker” or “unlawful migrant”, that what are dealing with and trying to figure out is how to deal with is real human beings fleeing terrible situations, who have hopes and fears and feelings just like ours, who have children like we do – or are children just like ours – who just want a safe place to live a good life with their family. Sure, the *way* in which we act should be rational. But the *reason* for acting is and should always be emotional. The fact that a photo of one little kid might move people more than the figure of 17,306 others is perverse, but that’s because the abstraction of 17,306 didn’t move us enough, not because the reality of one little kid moved us too much.

  • Simon Morgan

    This is the in the same vein as everybody in the local community expected to hold hands and grieve collectively after any local tragedy (teen car accident, toddler drowning, you name it).

    You have to be seen to be wiping the odd tear away, and having a group hug. It’s obscene. And it’s another thing we have to thank our lamebrain ‘progressives’ for.

    This particular boy and his family set off from Turkey, where they had been for three years I gather. But I mustn’t ruin the narrative here!

  • bob rivers

    The fault lies with us for expecting a far left dishrag like the Guardian to offer anything but emotional manipulation over rational debate. Most of the anti-Israel, anti-US filth embraces that rag, and it is a stretch to even call it a news source.

  • Di Hemy

    I hoped to read a well-reasoned discussion of the morality and usefulness of publishing a photo like that, perhaps referring to other iconic news photos such as the 1976 Hector Peterson image from Soweto. But all I see is off-the-point vituperation about the migrant problem. Somehow I expected better of Spectator readers…

  • Peter Mcilroy

    Weird article, weird comments. Commenters: Syria is not “North Africa.”

    And Syrians are not “economic refugees.” Nor, for that matter, are Sudanese.

    A for the article: methinks it doth protest too much. Pictures of suffering–and, yes, dead–children have always been part of war photography. And it right that it be so.

    • John Dub

      But the family in question were safe in Turkey. The moment they decided to move on the were de-facto economic refugees.

      • Armchair Hero

        You can label them “economic refugees” if you like. So what? They were forced out of where they lived, presumably abandoning their possessions and living in uncertainty for three years. How would you feel if that happened to you and your family? Saying that they were “quite safe” in Turkey is trying to find excuses for you to feel better about not giving a monkeys. I understand that O’Neill’s point that feeling bad and sharing a photo on social media doesn’t make anyone a champion of the dispossessed, but going in the opposite direction and feeling nothing is even worse. Saying that they were “economic refugees” or blaming the father for trying to get his family to Greece in that dangerous boat completely ignores the trauma that they have gone through in the last few years. I don’t blame them for trying. The plight of the refugees should inform rational discussion, and that photo tells us a lot about that plight.

  • Adam Bromley

    If a distressing image triggers a re-examination of policy then it may be a positive. The problem in the age of social media and the global internet is the lack of context or analysis. But this is not a new phenomenon. The grainy CCTV of Jamie Bulger being lead away by his killers, who were clearly children, triggered an outpouring of national self-flagellation; whether any good came of it not least for his mother is questionable. We’re not robots, we don’t act on pure reason and cold logic so our reactions are understandable. Unfortunately this often makes for bad decision making and lousy policy.

  • Velo

    You are on the ball, O’Neill. These pictures are a calculated form of PR to play on people’s heart strings. A representative of the Hungarian government was interviewed earlier this week. He said that the majority of the migrants arriving on their borders are “less photogenic” and fall into the 18-25 year old age category. In addition, many of them are not from Syria either.

    • Augustus

      And if they are from Syria a proportion of them are combat-ready and trained jihadists sent by people smugglers in the pay of the Islamic State mingling with the other migrants. There aim, once they have been registered as ‘asylum seekers’ somewhere in Western Europe, is to commit atrocious terrorist attacks in the name of the Caliphate.

  • Chamber Pot

    First brave Dave bombs Libya and causes the country’s collapse then, with the ensuing chaos tens of thousands head for Europe in rickety boats which capsize and cause thousands of drownings, and then he sends out HMS Bulwark to provide a floating hotel for these boat people which acts as a magnet for even more to chance their luck and fill the coffers of the gruesome people traffickers in Sabha.

    I would have thought that with 12 billion quid in Foreign Aid we could have bought off the people traffickers and saved thousands of lives ? Our politicians are completely self obsessed and are not interested in addressing real world problems.

    The finger of blame in the Libyan tragedy points squarely at Dave and to a lesser extent in the case of Syria for arming the (non-existent) moderate Syrian opposition and creating ISIS.

    • Acleron

      We could go back in history with the blame point. While people are drowning it suffices to say that all who have gamed the Middle East for their own gain are culpable.

      • Velo

        This isn’t just about the Med. We’ve exported our industries to every corner of the world to cut costs in recent decades. Check the labels on all your clothes and you’ll find that nothing is made here any more. Is it any wonder that people in poorer countries think we’re capable of paying for everything? Our politicians have exploited migration for many years. Trouble is, it’s now become a problem that they can no longer control. Open borders are a nightmare.

        • Armchair Hero

          If, as you say, other countries are the ones doing all the “making”, then maybe we are living off them not the other way around. Money (especially fiat money) is just a management tool. It is physical production that sustains us, and if that is happening elsewhere then our “service” industries better be making a genuine contribution in other ways (i.e. because of expertise and not because of fictitious debt bubbles!).

  • Alexander Voronin
  • Idamide

    If your disagree with this im’igration to the UK then sign the
    government petition. Google: petition 106477

  • Eoireitum

    Personally, I can’t look anymore at the photo. Too much. The cartoon in this week’s Times was just as affecting. I just wanted to reference an observation made some years ago by a Lebanese colleague. He lamented how the future direction of his country would be hamstrung by the flight of many “intellectuals” and educated classes not because of the brain drain impact on the economy but because he felt it was a patriot’s duty, however bad the situation (and here I recognise that there will be gradations) to stay and try and change society. Easier said than done, of course. But he felt that economic migrants fleeing to other countries was morally questionable. A better life should be fought for at home. Of course, refugees fleeing persecution and physical harm is another thing entirely but he equally felt that there was an onus on those to return in due course – and that their birthright and duty to those who remained demanded eventual repatriation and action from overseas. Otherwise how would things change?
    God forbid I am required to make that judgement.
    But there is a shift. I suspect that those coming into Europe have been lead to believe that it is their right to do this. They are coming to existing communities, and a “mini” version – a better version perhaps – of their homeland. Certainly with additional opportunity. I understand that.
    For those tasked with trying to define public policy, and therefore to take a more objective position than I, this is hard stuff. But someone, somehow, has to think of a way to meet the legitimate fears of indigenous peoples with the compassionate response to offer sanctuary.

  • Maureen Fisher

    The US and the rest of the West and our own Royal Family have a cosy warm relationship with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the biggest sponsors of ISIS and terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and Hezbollah who foment the atrocities and flight of civilians from the Middle East. How many refugees have these countries taken? None.

  • ChrisTavareIsMyIdol

    “His sad, resigned posture after he and his family made the treacherous journey from Syria to Turkey only to wash up dead on a Turkish beach.”
    You’d have more of a point Brendan if you didn’t write rubbish like this, the family was travelling from a safe country Turkey to another safe country Greece, not as you imply from Syria to Turkey.

  • James M

    Not narcissistic – ghoulish.


    Why is this only Europe’s problem? New York Times is even throwing their 2 cents worth on how many each European country should take. Could charter a few 747s to US or South Korea….

  • monsieur_charlie

    The EU have the resources to stop this but they won’t. I wonder why not. Seriously, why are they doing nothing about it?

  • kingkevin3

    I would suggest the roots of this idiotic outbreak of pseude concern is a result of the feminisation of our society. It reminds me of when Diana died. I remember almost being lynched the day after for simply asking most of the idiots around me what the fuck was up with them? The woman was a freeloader and a dumb one at that. Reason is a male virtue and we are dying out rapidly in this insane society.