In the last thirty-six hours, news services, blogs, social media and websites around the globe have posted an Associated Press picture of a little 3-year old Syrian child, later identified as Aylan Kurdi, washed up on the shores of a Turkish beach. It was an anonymous tribute in the Obituary pages of today’s The Sydney Morning Herald that shocked me to the core as I sipped my first coffee at 6.30am.
Aylan’s father, Abdullah, spoke in Turkey of the unimaginable loss of little Aylan and his elder brother Galip and his efforts to save them. They had fled Syria and paid a People Trafficker over A$2,800 to attempt the journey into the EU in Greece. Such a desperate plight, which also resulted in the horrific death of his wife, Rehana, is beyond understanding.
Picture © Copyright AP.
I have friends on social media who have stated their distress for being confronted with the image on Facebook when they logged on on Thursday morning. I understand it can not be to anyone’s liking. I agree: That’s not what Facebook set out to provide as a service. It is however part of a world in which we humans, alone of the animal species, express considered thoughts, emotions and communicate across national and international boundaries, in different languages. It’s a world where the desperation of tens of thousands is so extreme they will risk everything. For a remote chance at life.
The losses in the Mediterranean this year have been appalling. Boat after boat through the summer months has been upturned, sprung leaks, sunk. Hundreds have been lost in single events.
When I see the picture posted and this one below, of the two little brothers, I see, (and I think most parents see), a collage of our own children’s faces within these images. If you have not had the joy of your own children, you will see the faces of nephews and nieces, of your neighbours’ little ones. The memorial pictures of these children are, but for the Grace of God, whoever or whatever such a power may or may not be, the pictures of those near and dear. It’s extremely personal and very confronting. Because it tests our resolve and forces us to confront our own values and behaviours. Our shock gives way to the realisation that our own actions and inactions on war, on civil disobedience, in public and private life, in attitudes to climate change, to big-business, to the homeless man or woman we carefully move past on the sidewalk, – all are who we are, and such actions are the definition of our humanity or lack of it.
Three other ‘history-changing’ images were part of my youth. And they all have a personal connection. Each image changed the course of political direction, two probably influenced the end to the war in Vietnam.
As a fourteen year-old at English boarding school, I was an avid reader of newspapers. (I still am, what’s left of them!) In early Summer of 1963 I had been reading of growing rumours of alleged misdeeds by British Defence Minister John Profumo. Once the scandal broke a hapless lady of the night, one Christine Keeler, was hounded by the media to tell of her association with the Minister. But it was the sensitive studio-based picture by the late Lewis Morley, society photographer to the raving 1960’s, who caught the ordinariness of a young woman trying to earn a living, caught up in the Cold War. This image hung like a noose around Morley for the rest of his days – it defined him in the eyes of most commentators. Morley’s image resulted weeks later in forcing Prime Minister Harold MacMillan from office. A year later Labour scraped into power and Britain sank from Empire under the grey hand of Harold Wilson.
Today the Morley image has become a collectable piece of fine art. For twenty years I grew to know Morley, who retreated for a new life in Australia in the 1970’s, exactly a decade before I did the same with my family. Lewis maintained to the end that the power of that image was its innocence, something he insisted on, clearing his studio of all hangers on, so the poor girl could comply with the magazine contract, which stipulated she be photographed without clothes. Morley’s picture revealed nothing, through sensitivity and quick thinking. But for English society, the picture of a seated naked alleged prostitute shook and shocked English society as never before.
© Lewis Morley, 1963.
Eddie Adams, American war photographer, was the witness to General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, the South Vietnamese police chief, shooting a VietCong Soldier, Nguyễn Văn Lém. The head-on image of the gun in the police chief’s right hand, a millisecond before it was fired, shocked the world, when it first appeared in the New York Times, and later Time Magazine. That February 1968 image, taken at the start of The Tet Offensive, was also the picture that, for most, defined Adams. But he often stated it was not his most important or best picture.
“Nguyen” by Eddie Adams – © 1968 Wide World Photos. Copy found at BBC News. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nguyen.jpg#/media/File:Nguyen.jpg
I met Adams once, walking quietly through a Photo Marketing Convention show, arriving on the Nikon stand in either Las Vegas or New Orleans in 1998, some six years before he died. His distinctive pony tale helped me recognise him immediately. I knew of him and this picture; and I had read about his comments. In trying to strike up a conversation I asked him how he had been selected to become a combat photographer in Korea all those years ago, asking if he had used a Leica or one of the new Nikons. (He eventually did get a Nikon.) In his very direct way he simply recalled that being a photographer helped him avoid using weapons himself, but enabled him to fight for causes he believed in that supported America. He was always blunt. On the death of General Nguyễn years later he was to tell a television audience that “he was a Goddam hero” and that Nguyễn had fought for a just cause.
Adams believed his most important work was a photo essay on Vietnamese refugees who made it to Thailand, only to be towed out to sea again by Thai Authorities. Such a story is challengingly familiar to Australian readers. He used those images to argue a strong case for compassion. His award-winning work is believed to have influenced President Carter to allow some 200,000 Vietnamese refugees to go the USA. Other Vietnamese refugees and their descendants, are now a vital part of our own Australian community – hard working, hard studying, high achievers, valued members of today’s Australian community.
The last picture that shocked is Nic Ut’s 1972 picture of the Napalm Girl, or as it is better known, the ‘Girl in the Picture.’ That girl was Kim Phuc. She was recorded running down a Vietnamese road, having been badly burned by American bombers dropping Napalm. That picture ultimately forced Nixon to abandon the war. Because it changed Americans’ attitudes fully against the war. I was on my first visit to the US when this picture featured in American media. Everyone talked about it, whether they were for or against the war. It shocked as much as the picture by Bob Jackson of Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby had shocked Americans a decade earlier.
Image: © Nic Ut, 1972. Agency: Associated Press (AP).
In 1995, Kim Phuc, by then the mother of a small child, Thomas, featured in a photograph that was a cornerstone picture of a book called Family, in an amazing New Zealand photography project unusually entitled Milk. The picture, created by photographer Anne Bayin in Canada, Phuc’s home today, defines new life while reminding us of her own terrible deforming injuries. In 2004 Kim Phuc came to Australia to open a show of the pictures from the Milk project, which Nikon sponsored, on the forecourt of The Sydney Opera House. The grace and peacefulness of her words over a very special private dinner, with just six present, is possibly the most life-changing event of my life. She recounted her years of struggle. But she exuded a message of peace and forgiveness. I realised that out of the most appalling calamity, sometimes good can result, even if not directly.
© Anne Bayin, 1995, Kim Phuc and son Thomas.
The picture of little Aylan’s lifeless body on a distant shore this week surely must change even the most hard-hearted of minds. It MUST! If we are in any way beings of compassion and decency we will realise that anything is better than forcing desperate people to pay traffickers for the chance to escape, risking everything.
My life in photography has been filled with chance encounters and enormously heart-warming moments. The little lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi is a picture that must stir those of us who are so fortunate and give others the possibility of HOPE!
All words in this article are © Copyright John Swainston, 2015.
The pictures are subject to the copyright protection of their owners, their agencies and those attributed above. They are re-published here in the hope that showing them will influence change for good.
Sections of this article have been assisted by information checked in Wikipedia.