At the end of the summer, the Independent took the controversial decision to publish a photo a dead child washed up on a Mediterranean beach, in order to bring home the severity of the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe.
The photo was utterly devastating. In a single shot, the horror of the crisis crashed into Britain’s living rooms – and people responded by taking their old belongings to collection centres, donating to charities supporting the crisis, and pressuring the government to do more about the on-going crisis.
Working in charity fundraising, we often come across the issue of ‘how far do we go?’ Do we show the wounds, the dead bodies, and the dead children? Do such graphic images exploit the dead, and their families? Or should we try and balance the graphic and horrifying, with the hopeful – with the solution?
The answer, as ever, is somewhere in the middle and depends on context. Of course, sometimes a horrifying and graphic image is needed to stop people turning away from the scale of an awful issue, such as the refugee crisis. On other occasions, showing a positive and motivating image gives people a sense of hope that their donation or action can make a difference.
The main downfall of using horrifying images is that they can dehumanise the victim. One example I always use is how a local group protesting coverage of a recent war held up placards showing images of children that were blown to bits. The children were unidentifiable – a mess of body parts. The images were entirely dehumanising. Rather than encouraging empathy, it felt as though the images robbed the victims of war of their humanity. It felt exploitative – as though it didn’t matter who the children had been; all that mattered was their grim end. I thought about the parents of those children – would they have wanted their children to be used in this way? Would they have wanted their children to be remembered as a body part, not as a full human being who had their life taken away from them?
Where the Independent succeeded is that the image of Aylan did not dehumanise him. In fact, the opposite was true. We saw the photo, and we saw the child he was. We learnt his name. We listened to his story. We saw the face of his desperate father and mother. He wasn’t a symbol, or an object, to rally a cause. He was a child who had lost his life in a desperate and deeply horrifying situation.
To me, that is where the balance has to lie when choosing graphic images. Is the image exploitative? Is it forgetting the humanity and the life of the person in it? Is it horrifying for horror’s sake, or is it trying to bring an issue to life? Will it make an audience turn away and disengage, or will it engage with our empathy and our sense of fairness?
When we are trying to expose the horror of something like the refugee crisis, or the murders of civilian children in a warzone, it is tempting to reach for the most graphic, most horrific picture. But if that image merely serves to dehumanise and re-victimise, it won’t serve its purpose.