From Vietnam War to a Turkish beach, the shock of the photo endures


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A Turkish police officer carries a young boy who drowned in a failed attempt to sail to the Greek island of Kos. Photo: Reuters A Turkish police officer carries a young boy who drowned in a failed attempt to sail to the Greek island of Kos. Photo: Reuters


In an age of 24-hour news in which people are exposed to more footage from world trouble spots than ever before, the image of one dead Syrian toddler washed up on a Turkish beach demonstrates the enduring power of the still news photograph.
The photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, now the instantly recognisable symbol of the refugee crisis engulfing Europe, joins iconic images of past tragedies from Biafra to Vietnam that remain seared in people's memories.
In terms of impact on public opinion and even political fallout, Turkish photographer Nilufer Demir's image of Aylan, face-down by the water's edge in a red t-shirt and shorts, may be unprecedented.
Demir, who works for the Dogan agency, told broadcaster CNN Turk: "When I realised there was nothing to do to bring that boy back to life I thought I had to take his show the tragedy."
"I hope the impact this photo has created will help bring a solution," she said.
The image of Aylan spread across continents via Twitter on Wednesday before appearing on the front pages of newspapers around the world on Thursday, prompting a huge public outpouring of emotion and piling pressure on European governments to act.
"We don't have a clear-cut example of a single photograph having so much influence overnight," said Stuart Franklin, a Magnum photographer who shot the image of a Chinese man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Social media played a crucial part not only in disseminating the photo but in engaging people's emotions, said Jenny Matthews, a photographer who has worked around the world for media and aid organisations.
"People felt that they could be involved with the picture by saying how sad they felt," she said.
In Canada, the fate of Aylan and his family became a political issue after it emerged they had been trying to emigrate there. Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron bowed to public pressure to take in more Syrian refugees.
Charity Save the Children told Reuters it had seen a rise in donations to its Syria appeal since the photo appeared.
"Here we have a boy who is not malnourished, who is wearing contemporary clothing, he's got his new trainers on, he looks like he's out for a day out at the beach," said Brett Rogers, director of the Photographers' Gallery in London.
"And to think that could have happened on a beach where we could have been sitting a couple of weeks ago is the other thing that just strikes home."
Past tragedies
The harrowing image is already being compared to three past landmarks in news photography.
In 1969, Don McCullin's images of a skeletal Biafran woman trying to breastfeed her starving baby and of other children desperate for food in the secessionist enclave blockaded by Nigerian forces, raised consciousness of the war.
The photos were turned into posters brandished by protesters who marched against British support for Nigeria. Weeks later, John Lennon cited the Biafran issue as one reason for returning his MBE, an honour bestowed on him by Queen Elizabeth.
In 1972, Nick Ut's shot of a naked and terrified nine-year-old girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, fleeing a napalm bombing in Vietnam captured the horrors of that war and appeared on the front pages of American newspapers despite the nudity, a taboo at the time.
Such was the power of the image that President Richard Nixon wondered out loud, captured on tape, if it had been staged by the anti-war camp for propaganda purposes. Its authenticity has been comprehensively proven.
In 1993, Kevin Carter's photo of a tiny, emaciated Sudanese girl collapsed on the ground with a vulture waiting nearby caused widespread shock and horror, with hundreds of people calling newspaper editors to ask what had happened to her.
Carter was criticised for taking the picture instead of rescuing the girl. What was not widely known at the time was that he had arrived on a plane bringing food and the girl's parents had put her down briefly to go and get some.
The photograph won the Pulitzer Prize the following year, three months before Carter killed himself.
Like the picture of the drowned Syrian toddler, those images were examples of how a still photograph can crystallise a complex, intractable crisis into a powerful symbol that anyone can understand.
"Photos are crude, they don't give you the whole reality. Putting over accurate information can be really hard. People half listen, they get confused. What's good about the picture of Aylan that it's clear. It's one truth," said Matthews.
Europe's migration crisis had been going on all summer but endless news articles and TV reports showing scenes of suffering and desperation did not have the impact of the photo of Aylan.
"Moving footage is over in an instant and you don't revisit it. You lose memory of it much more quickly," said Rogers.
"With the still image it's in front of you, you can ponder it and it becomes a metaphor for what's happening with the refugee crisis."

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