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).
-----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.
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.
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."]
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?