So a photo captured the attention of the world this week. We cannot forget the message behind that photo, the refugee crisis literally knocking down Europe's doors.
But in the wake of that photo, there's been a big debate of whether or not the image of a child, drowned on a beach should be shared. It's also who shares it, when, and why.
I read a thoughtful post by Eman Idil, who I don't know personally, but apparently we have many friends in common.
"During my first term of journalism school, someone from CTV Regina spoke to my class. All I remember from her presentation is the ending, where she said that CTV would not broadcast the body of a deceased child in Canada/North America because it would be too traumatic, but that the rules would be different if it was a child overseas in a war zone, like Syria (her exact words).
Even in death, we cannot give people with brown skin the dignity they deserve. To people who are choosing to share pictures of Syrian refugees whose bodies lay scattered on shorelines, enough. These are human beings who had stories and families and lives we could have learned so much from. If we need pictures to remind us of our humanity and to grieve for those souls, we as human beings are lost.
Remind yourself that no one has ever shared photographs of the Sandy Hook Shooting. That no public broadcaster would have ever considered taking a picture of a child who had died on our soil. And that in sharing those pictures, you are subconsciously agreeing that some lives matter more than others and deserve more respect."
This post had me thinking for much of last night.
When the photo came up in our newsroom I argued for it's relevancy. I have not worked in every newsroom and I have never worked in CTV's newsroom, but where I have worked, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Thailand, there is not a set rule of what you share and what you don't. It's a conversation in the newsroom between respected colleagues and news directors. At the end, there are always different opinions, and in our newsroom which is predominantly white, cis-people, I recognize that not all opinions are being reflected.
Back to why I argued for it's relevancy. It is powerful and can evoke change.
I don't know if many people who aren't fully engulfed in news (as an occupation) recognize the severity and the length of the refugee crisis around the world. Everyday I read headlines, often on air, that say 40 dead, 100 dead, thousands dead or fleeing ____.
When I lived in Thailand, refugees from Myanmar (Burma) were being pushed back out into the water by government officials who would later find the boats capsized and bodies floating or already down in a sandy grave. That hasn't stopped.
I spoke recently to a man from Sudan whose entire family had been displaced by fighting, whom himself fled after nearly being forced to be a child soldier. He still worries everyday, even after a "peace agreement" because Sudan, as a country, is on the brink of starvation.
In Syria itself, armed conflict since 2011 has meant more than half the population is displaced, more than 11 million Syrians have fled their homes to other Syrian cities or to neighbouring countries. Diseases, viruses, and infections once thought eradicated from the area have come back full force. Before the crisis, Syria was a middle-income country but now more 50 percent of Syrians live under the poverty line and the people who remain are now starting to face starvation because 50 percent of Syria’s public bakeries have been damaged, increasing bread prices by 300 per cent on average and up to 1000 per cent in the hardest hit areas. Many people have also forgotten, including western governments, how only a year ago it was suspected that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people.
I know it's difficult to hear these things but it's even more difficult to see them.
"Peter Bouckaert, emergency director with Human Rights Watch, who shared the image of the Syrian boy on Twitter, told CBC News that it has forced people to 'become confronted with the horror of what's happening to Syrians right now.' Canada's own immigration minister paused his re-election campaign to turn his attention to reports that relatives of the boy had tried to bring his Syrian family to Canada."
As journalists, we are required often to use our words (whether on air, on TV, or in print) to grab your attention towards different crisis around the world or at home. A good journalist can make you cry, think, or get angry just by how they approach the subject matter through those words, without an image. But there is a disconnect there because no matter how good you are, if the reader doesn't read or the viewer doesn't listen, then it won't matter. How many stories about drowned refugees and bombs in Syria did you hear without even noticing because you were driving, eating supper, or just scrolling through things online? This is my job and I've missed a lot.
But will you remember this photo? Yes.
There is a long history in journalism of using the power of the photograph to bring attention to a crisis. (Here's a great article by CBC compiling some)
In 1972, Nick Ut's photo of five children fleeing an napalm attack during the Vietnam War sparked the anti-war movement in the United States and changed the western world's understanding of war itself. It was the first real images in modern warfare of the fight for survival by citizens on the ground. The girl in the photo, nine-year-old Kim Phuc, her name, face of terror, and burnt naked body changed the world. Phuc is now a Canadian citizen and runs The Kim Foundation International, a group dedicated to helping child victims of war.
Kevin Carter's photo of a starving toddler trying to reach a feeding center, with the menacing gaze of a hooded vulture nearby, garnered him global recognition but was also likely what led to his death. He committed suicide three months after winning the Pulitzer Prize. But after the picture was published, the world woke up to the famine.
Carter was also the first to photograph a public execution "necklacing" by black Africans in South Africa. His quote's on the images really hold true "I was appalled at what they were doing. But then people started talking about those pictures... then I felt that maybe my actions hadn't been at all bad. Being a witness to something this horrible wasn't necessarily such a bad thing to do." It sounds messed up, and it is, but it's also profoundly important.
When you want to look away, which you can do through a newspaper or flip a channel, a powerful photo will not allow you to ignore what is happening.
Thinks James Nachtwey , in my opinion the best living war photographer, and his entire body of work. This entire series "When the World Turned Its Back: James Nachtwey’s Reflections on the Rwandan Genocide" is told through photograph's that are uncomfortable, thoughtful, and powerful.
So that's why I argued for this photo. I don't argue for the graphic image every time , sometime it's not necessary. In the case of Sandy Hook, the images of those children would be a spectacle because the world was already watching. It would not have told a stronger story because people were already ripping their papers open to read and turning on their TVs to watch what was happening. In all honesty, they did release the audio of the 911 calls from Sandy Hook not long ago and we played them on air, that, I was not comfortable with because I didn't think it added anything to the story. It was an exploitation.
But until this image came out, the refugee crisis was NOT on the minds of Canadian politicians or voters during this campaign season. The struggle of a family who lost hope to get into Canada was a story ignored. Think about Minister Chris Alexander on CBC's Power and Politics claiming they hadn't done segments on Syria, when they had, because up until this point it was so easy to forget.
If this photo changes how you, I, our government, and our world thinks about refugees than that young boy's death will have a stronger meaning. If the photo had not been published he would have been a statistic at most and grieved only by family while the rest of the world bought lattes and perused the Style section of Globe and Mail and flipped past P&P to watch reality TV.
Is there a point to recognize the way we treat different bodies around the world? Absolutely. If it was thousands of white people dying in the water trying to escape a civil war I think the West would have been up in arms ages ago. If they were white would we be taking them into Canada arms open? Probably. That is a real issue and I think a conversation that needs to be had. But I don't want to distract from the VERY important conversation we are finally, on a global scale and within our Canadian political climate, having about the refugee crisis.
So that is my rant.
If you a disagree that's fine. I think it's really important to talk about it further. In some instances I could be the deciding factor whether an image is published or not and I take the responsibility seriously. So, the more context and thought I have around the whole thing the better.
Kelly Geraldine Malone is a freelance journalist, podcaster, and radio producer based out of Manitoba, Canada