Degree Critical, Spring 2017

Friday 07/07/2017

Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Kurdish refugee from Syria who drowned in a failed attempt to sail to the Greek island of Kos, lies on the shore in the Turkish coastal down of Bodrum. Photo: Nilüfer Demir/DHA/Reuters.

Reflections on the Image of Alan Kurdi

by David Levi Strauss, Department Chair

On Saturday, June 3, 2017, MFA Art Writing Department Chair David Levi Strauss participated in "A Symposium on Refugees: Image, Media, and Policy" organized in response to FotoFest's exhibition of the Annenberg Space for Photography's REFUGEE, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's exhibition Homelands and Histories: Photographs by Fazal Sheikh.

The afternoon symposium at the museum featured two panel discussions. The first looked at how refugees are portrayed in the media and the various ways images can be used—from sparking policy change to fueling fear. The second discussion focused on national and local policies concerning refugees today and in the near future. For full festival details, visit FotoFest's website. A transcription of Strauss's talk is below, watch the full symposium here (David Levi Strauss's talk begins at -3:14:14). 

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A little boy lies face down on the beach, as if sleeping. He is dressed in a red shirt, blue shorts, and infant shoes, and his hair is neatly combed. He looks peaceful. Someone should wake him, before the sun burns his skin and the cold waves wash over him. Someone should take care of him.
 
The little boy was named Alan Kurdi. There has always been some controversy over his name. It went out first as “Aylan” and was later corrected. The last name is not a family name, but simply indicates that he was of Kurdish origin, from Northern Syria. His father and mother were fleeing their home in Kobane, and the murderous ISIS forces there. They paid someone $2300 apiece to let them get into a small rubber raft to cross from the resort town of Bodrum on the Turkish coast to the Greek island of Kos, three miles away, where they planned to head north, and eventually get to Canada, where family awaited them.
 
 A Turkish police officer carries Alan Kurdi from the shore. Photo: Nilüfer Demir/AFP/Getty Images.
The raft was overloaded, the Aegean Sea was rough that night, and the paid pilot was incompetent and cowardly. The boat capsized in the middle of the night, throwing all 17 people on board into the sea, where at least 12, all Syrians, drowned, including three-year-old Alan, his five-year-old brother Galib, and their mother Rehan, who tried desperately to hold them up. Only their father survived, bereft, to carry their bodies back to Kobane.
  
At the time Alan’s body was discovered on Ali Hoca beach, on September 2, 2015, at 5:30 am GMT, more than 2500 Syrian refugees had already died trying to reach safety, many of them children. Most of them drowned in the Mediterranean, but at least 85 drowned in the Aegean Sea, mostly at night. But this death was different, because of these images. These images migrated from a beach in Turkey to the screens of 20 million people around the world in 12 hours. 
 
These photographs were taken by a Turkish photojournalist named Nilüfer Dimir, working for Turkey’s Dogan News Agency (DHA). DHA reported the story in an article, obviously in Turkish, at 8:42 am. Their report featured a gallery of 50 photographs, of which 4 featured the body of Alan Kurdi. At 9:10 am, another Turkish news agency, Diken, picked up the story and lead with an image of Alan Kurdi.
 
At 10:23 am, a Turkish journalist and activist named Michelle Demishevich posted one of the pictures of Alan Kurdi on Twitter. The tweet didn't link to either news story. It only carried a caption, the image, and five hashtags, including #Refugeeswelcome and #Syrianrefugees. Within an hour, this was retweeted 33 times and a few other tweets started to appear in Greece and Spain. We now know, thanks to improved analytics, precisely how these images spread globally. [Much of this data was collected and compiled by the Visual Social Media Lab at Goldsmiths College in London and published in December 2015, Vis, F., and Goriunova, O. (Eds.). "The Iconic Image on Social Media: A Rapid Research Response to the Death of Aylan Kurdi."] 
 
The images began to spread through the Middle East, on tweets from Lebanon, Gaza, and Syria, spread by activists from the Free Syria Media Hub and the former Minister of Health in Hamas, in Gaza. An hour later, the Emergency Director of Human Rights Watch, Peter Bouckaert, posted three pictures of Alan Kurdi with commentary, from Geneva. His tweet received 664 re-tweets from all over, including the U.S. and U.K., Australia and Malaysia. As soon as the images left the Middle East, they went viral.  At this point, people started to alter and add to the images.
 
 
 
But at this point, they’d only been shared on Twitter 500 times in 2 hours, and reached an audience of maybe half a million. At 12:49 pm, Washington Post Bureau Chief Liz Sly put out a tweet that was retweeted 7,421 times, and covered much more ground globally. At this point, almost five hours after the images were published online and three hours after they first went to Twitter, the Turkish press was still the only one covering the story.
 
The first international publication to release an article on Alan Kurdi was the Daily Mail, in London, at 1:10 pm, under the headline “Terrible Fate of a Tiny Boy who Symbolizes the Desperation of Thousands.” By the end of the day, 500 articles were published online and virtually all major news organizations carried the story on their front pages.
 
But before it got to print, the diffusion of the story was consistently image-led. At this point, the number of responses by cartoonists and others exploded.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Prior to the Alan Kurdi images, the terms “migrant” and “refugee” had about equal search volume on Google. After September 2015, Google searches for “refugee” quadrupled those for “migrant.” Something had shifted.
 
Refugees are fleeing something, or someone, and seeking refuge (asylum, shelter, protection) in a foreign land. The Latin refugium means “an escape.” The term refugee was originally applied to the French Huguenots, who fled to England from religious persecution in 1685. The next big wave of “refugees” would eventually be called “Americans.”

In contrast, a migrant is just migrating, moving from one place to another. It comes from the Latin word for “wandering.” It's a term of aspiration, implying choice. 
 
Placard in a demonstration in Athens, Greece Sept. 12, 2015. Photo: Paul Hanna/Reuters. 
 
In Frankfurt, German artists Oguz Sen and Justus Becker painted a mural of Alan Kurdi that could be seen from the European Central Bank headquarters. Photo: D. Roland/Getty Images/AFP. 
 
The great phenomenologist Vilém Flusser, in his book The Freedom of the Migrant: Objections to Nationalism, translated in 2003, goes into great detail about the projections onto “aliens” as scapegoats throughout history, and builds a positive defense of the migrant. As he points out, Aristotle said that “the starting point of philosophy has always been unsettledness.” And Flusser writes:

A philosophy of emigration is still to be written. Its categories are still nebulous and blurred. But it needs to be written because it would benefit not only actual emigrants but virtual ones as well. One of its principal tasks would have to be to differentiate as clearly as possible between emigration and flight in a world in which many are forced to flee. (p. 24)

 
Sen and Becker's mural was later defaced by right-wing graffiti reading "Borders Save Lives." Photo: A. Arnold/Picture Alliance/DPA. 
 
Alan Kurdi’s tender, lifeless body lying on the beach as if sleeping quickly became an inescapable symbol of the human tragedy of the current refugee crisis. This massive crisis, involving millions of people, was suddenly condensed into the body of one little boy on the beach. He looks like he is trying to hear the sea speak to him, to tell him why this awful thing has happened.
 
The incongruity of his innocence and the brutality of the circumstances of his death make the image impossible to forget. It forces one to ask: How in the world did we get to this point? As often happens with iconic public images, this one also crossed a line—a longstanding prohibition against showing images of dead children in the media. 
 
The image was often accompanied on Twitter by the Turkish hashtag that translates to “Humanity Washed Up Onshore.” Many of the xenophobes in Europe had loudly decried the influx of refugees as a “sea” or “tide,” washing up on the shores of Europe, carrying disease, poverty, unrest and terrorism with it. Suddenly, with Alan Kurdi, the surge had a different look—the body of a child, swept up by history.
 
It is one of those images that seems to arise out of the collective unconscious. Comparisons have already been made to Nick Ut’s 1972 image of a Vietnamese girl running naked from a napalm attack, which is credited with helping to shift world public opinion against the war in Vietnam. One also cannot help but compare it to the image of Michael Brown’s body, lying face down in the street for hours after being shot by police, which fueled uprisings against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri and ignited the Black Lives Matter movement.
 
Kitsch painting by Turkish artist Faysal Bugday, shown in an exhibition in Ankara right before the referendum that gave Erdogan unlimited powers.
One of the first political figures to respond to the Alan Kurdi images was the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “The European nations that have turned the Mediterranean into a grave for immigrants share the sin for each immigrant’s death,” he said. “It is not only immigrants who are drowning in the Mediterranean, it is also humanity.”
 
This from the man who has turned a blind eye on the atrocities of ISIS against Alan Kurdi’s family and many others like them in Northern Syria, especially the Kurds, and has resumed his war on the Kurds and their allies to gain political advantage as he struggles to retain and consolidate political power.
 
Three graves hold the remains of Alan Kurdi, his mother, and brother. Photo: Alice Martins/The Washington Post
In October 2015, after returning to Kobane to bury his wife and two sons, Abdullah Kurdi, Alan’s father, called for the political recognition of the Rojava administration: “I am grateful for your sympathy for my fate,” he wrote. “This has given me the feeling that I am not alone. But an essential step in ending this tragedy and avoiding its recurrence is support for our self-organization.”
 
Abdullah Kurdi, Alan Kurdi’s father, in the ruins of his home in Kobane. Photo: Alice Martins/The Washington Post
What Alan Kurdi’s father meant by that is mostly unknown to Americans. He was referring to the Rojava Revolution in July 2013, a feminist, ecological, democratic revolution that happened and is happening in Northern Syria. The all-women militias of the YPJ are some of the few who have consistently beaten ISIS in combat. The U.S. government is right now, as we speak, arming them to go after ISIS in Raqqa.

There is much more to say about this revolution. I was part of a collective that published this book on the subject last year, and there have been a number of good books written about it since then.
 
 
The proper response to the tragedy of Syrian refugees and migrants is to help the Kurds establish a democratic autonomous zone from Northern Iraq to the Mediterranean. This is the next step, whether Erdogan likes it or not.

What has happened and is happening in Rojava, in Northern Syria, is the most hopeful thing that has happened in the Middle East in a very long time. It could, in fact it is designed by Öcalan, to lead to a “Renaissance of the Middle East.”
 
YPJ Soldiers.
 
  
Kurdish supporters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) hold up portraits of the jailed Turkish Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Öcalan during a demonstration demanding his release, in Beirut. Photo: Hussein Malla/AP.
  
Women's commune meeting in Qamishlo. Photo: Dilar Dirik. 
The transformed PKK and the newly formed ISIS represent two entirely different responses to capitalist modernity and neoliberal globalism. The PKK, under Öcalan’s leadership, has embraced a new structure of stateless democracy based on anarchist principles of democratic confederalism, while ISIS has moved to apotheosize the disastrous projections of Global Capital, as a super-state, or Caliphate, based on the most corrupt, repressive, and reactionary interpretations of Islam.

The PKK in Rojava is trying to build a more just and peaceful world. ISIS’s response to the conflict in Syria and Iraq is to build a new slave society on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. The battle being waged in Rojava is the first in a war for the future of the entire region. Where will the rest of the world stand?
 
Syria. Serikani. Rojava. Portrait of Beritan Khobat, 20, from Derek. Photo: Newsha Tavakolian/Magnum Photos.