A place to file your complaints. Submissions welcome.
By Sinnamon Rohl
It’s Thursday morning, September 3, 2015. I’m spending it with my daughter’s elementary school class, at a beach on Lake Michigan. The teacher’s talking about natural disasters. The children are fidgeting and playing with the sand. I’m so lucky to be here on this beach with my daughter. I’m so lucky that we are both squishing the sand between our toes. Today, neither of us get into the water.
I have been crying, intermittently and in private, for the last 24 hours. Full-fledged crying, not merely teary-eyed, over a baby I did not know. It’s been over 24 hours since photos of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian refugee, began to circulate in the news and social media. For some media outlets, a narrative has emerged in support of showing graphic imagery, like that of Aylan, whose tiny, toddler body, dressed in summer shorts and sneakers, was pictured face down on a Turkish beach after drowning in the Mediterranean sea. The argument is that by showing the real, brutal, human cost of the conflict in Syria, those in power might be cajoled into action rather than passivity—and that people need to see it in order to understand what is happening in the world. Journalists like Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! have pointed to the influence of photography on social justice and public opinion, citing the death of Emmett Till among others. And it is true. Imagery has the power to evoke emotion, expand understanding and persuade.
However, I feel compelled to share another perspective, a more nuanced one, especially when it comes to sharing shocking imagery of refugees, and in particular children.
In the summer of 1974, the small Mediterranean island of Cyprus was invaded by the Turkish military, who took control of 38% of the island and displaced approximately 282,000 people, mainly Greek-Cypriot civilians. My family numbered among those who fled. And I grew up in the long shadow of this catastrophic aggression.
[I want to add, because I know the silencing that happens when Cyprus is the topic of conversation, that I am not interested in a political debate discussing the ideology of the invasion or the history of Turkish military engagement. I am sharing a personal account. If you have something to say about “why” the invasion happened, or feel the need to justify the destruction of human life and Cypriot culture, write your own essay.]
I was born in the United States, in the Midwest, safely tucked a world away from the constant threat of further conflict. But as isolated as I was physically, my childhood was steeped in imagery of refugees, stories of war, and the reality that those closest to me had survived by literally fleeing in the night under the blast of artillery and the pulse of helicopter blades.
“The Invasion” was a part of our daily conversations, and was classified as a proper noun in our household:
“Before The Invasion we had a lemon grove.”
“Since The Invasion, Evie has been living in refugee housing.”
“During The Invasion, Turkish helicopters dropped messages written in Greek, telling us not to run.”
“We lost everything in The Invasion.”
As a child, it taught me that you could lose everything at any moment if someone stronger wanted to take it. It taught me that a peaceful day could be disrupted by extreme violence. It taught me that your life can be forever changed by events beyond your control.
Also, because I was born an American citizen, it taught me about the faith that my family had in American status. “You’re an American! You could write a letter to your politicians… to your president! You could demand that the UN sanctions be upheld. You can tell them what has happened to us.” By the time I was 8-years-old, I understood that the likelihood of me doing anything effectively persuasive was slim. And of course, they knew that, too.
Yet, I felt that burden. And as I stood on the Green Line which divides the capitol in Nicosia and the country, I looked up at the Turkish guard standing on top of a tall, medieval stone wall, and I understood that burden. The soldier, who I’m sure was a fairly young man, looked down upon me, a second-grader with my hair in ponytails, and literally patted the blade of a machete into the palm of his hand.
The worst was hidden from me, but what I did see and experience made a lasting impression. I remember being taken to refugee camps, still inhabited many years after the invasion—one of the tents, lettered in English, bore the phrase “Turkey’s Allies Share Turkey’s Crimes.” I remember holding the hand of a dying old woman, who was lying on a padded cot in the small living room of her daughter’s American funded refugee housing. Like a homing pigeon, my father was compelled to bring us to the Green Line, where we could travel no further, and stare helplessly in the direction of our village.
Photographs published in books, magazines and newspapers, a constant visual reminder of The Invasion, were common in our American home. In the photograph adjacent this paragraph, the kneeling man on the far left is Antonakis Korellis. He is from Kythrea, my family’s village. The remains of the men pictured, along with 14 other people, were found in a well in the occupied northern territory of Cyprus in 2009. This finding was part of a UN-backed program that so far has discovered the mass graves and remains of approximately 1,000 people who are assumed to be missing persons. Most of the photographs populating my memory are of prisoners of war, or crying women and children holding photographs of missing people.
The photography I saw of The Invasion was black and white, and all of it seemed dated to my young eyes. The clothes. The grainy quality of the print. It was distant, but looming. It was like a still-life, with a wicked backstory. The voice in my head spoke, “this could have been you! This could still be you.”
As I grew into an adult, much of my radicalized nature subsided. My daily interactions were unconcerned with the political nature of my past. And during this time, I felt better… normal (or more normal). I became a mother. Controversially, I made the decision to allow my children’s identities to develop without the overbearing knowledge and overpowering influence of The Invasion. The Invasion does not play a regular role in their lives.
But over time, even with the comfort of distance, I have discovered that I am surprisingly sensitive to refugee issues. I was shocked that, although I understood the history of the story, I had to excuse myself from watching the movie Blood Diamond due to my own uncontrollable response to the events depicted. The same was true of Hotel Rwanda. (By the way, both of these movies were chosen without my input. My ex was a completely insensitive asshole.) Although I can read, understand and stomach the news of terrible human events, I am absolutely unable to manage my own reaction to the visual depiction of refugees, even when fictional. I also admit that, in all likelihood, I probably have some form of PTSD.
I know that time makes us numb. We see imagery (like that of Emmett Till lying in his coffin, or the very famous 1972 image of Phan Thị Kim Phúc, otherwise known as “napalm girl”), and we nod or shake our heads with disapproval at humanity’s past cruelties. I know that these images were persuasive and important to our collective history. I know that they serve an important purpose. And I also know that with time, they become almost nostalgic and somewhat unreal. Images actually lose their original context over time.
Today, one day after the heartbreaking photograph of Aylan Kurdi was published, social media is inundated with the image. Handfuls of editorial cartoonists and digital artists have appropriated the image of his tiny, limp body, and depicted it in any number of politically motivated ways. Some of the depictions feel very exploitative. As a mother, I see these depictions, and somehow, even though I cannot, I want to protect him. I do not want his image to be used in these ways.
Aylan’s father, Abdullah Kurdi, the only survivor in his family of 4 (Mother/Wife Rehan (27), Galip (5) and Aylan (3) died by drowning), told reporters that they had attempted to legally immigrate to Canada but were rejected. He turned to smugglers in hopes of getting his family out of Syria and to safety. The devastating private and personal hell lived by this 40-year-old Syrian father is now a narrative being repeated throughout the whole world.
And I feel deeply triggered. And I know that I cannot be alone. The impact of being re-traumatized is not trivial. I see these images. Instead of feeling motivated to “do something,” I feel helpless, impotent and terrified.
I also feel deep sorrow. And I can’t help but replay the details of the end of his life over and over again in my head. And I mourn his horrifying death, and the failed plight of his family to escape harm’s way.
I am not proposing that upsetting images be withheld or censored from the public. I’m not suggesting that the imagery itself is not powerful, and an effective catalyst for social and political change. I’m definitely not suggesting that it’s meaningless. I understand that the photographs of Aylan, his impossibly small body washed ashore by an unforgiving sea, represent an opportunity to put a human face on what has been inadequately labeled the “migrant crisis.”
What I will suggest is that it’s not necessarily as “persuasive” in the manner in which some claim. And that it’s callow, coarse hubris to suggest that all viewers need to see these images in order to understand what is and has been at stake for the refugees of our world.
Although these images may outrage some individuals, and provoke obligatory donations of money to refugees and asylum seekers, it’s also somewhat myopic to insist that all people need to be confronted with them in order to feel compassion. It is possible, in a world full of refugees, that not everyone needs persuading. Not everyone needs help to “understand” what’s going on. I do understand. The voice in my head spoke, “this could have been you! This could still be you.”
Editor’s note: Out of respect for those who, like myself, are very triggered by repeatedly viewing the images discussed in this piece, I have purposely refrained from providing links to news sources covering Aylan and his family because of the graphic nature of the imagery. As of this publishing, I have been unable to find any written accounts that do not contain these photographs. Sources used for the writing of this essay include the New York Times and NPR. I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.
Additionally, any intentionally inflammatory, disrespectful or misleading comments will be banned from this article. Those seeking to disrupt or make deliberately offensive comments with the intent to cause distress or incite rhetorical conflict will not be tolerated.