Brendan O’Neill

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

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