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Archives of Horror and Ethical Obligation

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

On September 2nd, 2015, a two-year-old boy washed up on the shores of Greece. His name was Alan Kurdi. After trekking the sea with his family, he and his mother met their fate in the journey that hundreds of thousands of Syrians have taken in recent years to flee from deadly conflict.

The death of Alan Kurdi, courtesy of Ur Cameras on Flickr

The photograph of the boy, dressed and soaked in a red t-shirt, jean shorts and tennis shoes, made headlines across the globe. The position of his body, in a recognizable, childlike position of rest, pulls at the heartstrings of us all. Subsequently, it didn't take long for the image to sweep the internet on social media.

The original photo, taken by Turkish photojournalist, Nilüfer Demir, illustrates the desperate attempts taken by countless people each day, to seek refuge. His mother never having been found, Kurdi is sadly only one of thousands of lost at sea. As his image circulated the internet, a whole new, controversial archive of imagery was created. Most of which called upon the composition of the photograph.

Artists and activists on Twitter shared images of drawings, digital art, murals and more, keeping his story alive, but more to the point I'd like to make, keeping the boy himself "alive."

The virality of any image is contingent on its relatability. Where there is more life and relatability, there exists a quicker motion to empathy. Fred Moten, American poet and cultural theorist, calls this move to empathy and grief 'dynamic universality.'


The archives that exist on the internet are controversial for several reasons. Freelance photojournalists have ethical dilemmas when posting photos like those of Kurdi, because while the public has a right and an obligation to bear witness to it, the internet opens several networks of possibility. It could go viral, and be circulated without proper attributions, or, as seen on Twitter, remixed and retweeted thousands of times.

While the public must bear witness to the important work of photojournalists, thier existence on social media is heavily debated. In our digitally interconnected world, in the storm of massive networks and seas of media, the public is desensitized to the gravity of such horrors. Scrolling from one post to the next, the tragedy of Kurdi's death becomes juxtaposed to: (who knows?) the best recipes from a Lebanese cook, news of Apple's newest iPhone (newer than the last), a crowdfunding campaign for someone's dying dog, ads from Shein, hair and makeup tutorials from your favorite influencer, the list goes on...

In his song Welcome to the Internet, from the movie Inside, Bo Burnham perfectly encapsulates the chaos and the overwhelm of the internet which makes for an anaesthetized user. (Even on my quest to find this song, I was made to skip an ad from Save the Children).

For more on grievability in the context of photojournalism, Judith Butler and Susan Sontag have many interesting scholarly works about the matter. I discussed it further in this blog post about grief. Reading that will also help to make my next point about the photograph, which is that the grievability of the subject is influenced in this case also by the clothes on his back. The western world can look at this and think, "he is like my son," or daughter, cousin, because he is dressed in a way that we recognize.


The Save The Children advertisement I saw just before embedding Burnham's video is a great example of the stereotype of a suffering, African child. They were not dressed, with bellies bloated, and innocent, unknowing eyes. Cultural theorists like Emily Regan and Enrico de Angelis call on the depiction of the savage --someone apart from us, and therefore unrelatable. Despite the desperate and tragic scenes in Syria, this motif of the 'savage' seemingly must be combatted to raise awareness and garner foreign intervention. PSA's typically aim to do just that, and because of the nature of the photograph, videos tend to perform better. Agreeable to Sontag's work, Emily Regan Wills exemplifies the "flawed, non-existent, or temporarily suspended nature of the subject" that photography, as a medium, creates. Save The Children published this socially shocking video the year before Kurdi washed up on the shore, in 2014. Notice the choice to follow a young, white child. Some who have republished this have titled it "If London were Syria."

Our relationship with the media has always been a battle. Strategizing relatability is useful, yet manipulative and sometimes harmful to others. In this case, addressing the exploitation and commodification of their pain. The cost of reaching wide audiences is subtly normalized. Portraying the truth is difficult even in documention. In an environment where anything can be falsely attributed, remixed and changed, a critical eye is essential. The duty of a cultural theorist is to immerse themselves in the world in order to surpass these boundaries, now essential in the media flood. Archives exist to document and inform, to challenge and control any authority over the images and documents within. This brings me to think about the artistic return to realism, discussed in my previous blog post, if you'd like.



The Swimmers is an inspiring documentary film based on the true story of two Syrian sisters and their search for liberation, safety and success.

The director of the film, Sally El Hosaini, at the end of this interview, says that it was important for her to show some scenes in which the camera "pans out" from the girls' individual situation and exemplifies the gravity of what refugees go through. One powerful scene was after the girls just barely arrived to the Greek shores, they entered another sea of life vests.

On the left: Netflix poster for the film depicting the scene after their arrival
On the right: Real photograph of Lesbos published in The Daily Mail

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