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A Range of Reactions to Photo of Dead Syrian Child Across Global Media

Media in Europe, the United States, and Europe each reacts in different ways to the widely shared photo of a dead Syrian child washed ashore in Turkey.

A paramilitary police officer carries the lifeless body of an unidentified migrant child, lifting it from the sea shore, near the Turkish resort of Bodrum, Turkey,  early Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015.  A number of migrants are known to have died and some are still reported missing, after boats carrying them to the Greek island of Kos capsized. (AP Photo/DHA) TURKEY OUT
A paramilitary police officer carries the lifeless body of an unidentified migrant child, lifting it from the sea shore, near the Turkish resort of Bodrum, Turkey, early Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015. A number of migrants are known to have died and some are still reported missing, after boats carrying them to the Greek island of Kos capsized. (AP Photo/DHA) TURKEY OUT

The heart-wrenching photo of the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, lying face-down on a Turkish beach, took up more than half of Thursday’s front page of Beirut newspaper Al-Mustaqbal. “Death upon the wave,” read the headline under a close-up image of the tiny body. Across much of Europe, the news coverage was only slightly more muted: “The drama that embarasses Europe,” scolded Spain’s Grenada Hoy, which showed Aylan with his face digitalized beyond recognition.

And in the United States, most of Aylan’s body was obscured by the Turkish officer who carried him away from the shore, as pictured in the Wall Street Journal, under the headline: “Amid Europe’s Migrant tale, a Small Horror in Turkey.”

The image of Aylan’s body was spashed across the world’s newspapers Thursday, a day after going viral in one of the most graphic examples yet of the plight of migrants and refugees trying to flee to Europe. Authorities said Aylan’s mother and brother also drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as the family tried to sail to safer shores.

The picture — the latest to shock the world of what has been described as Europe’s largest migrant crisis since World War II — hit home hardest in the Mideast, to judge by the Newseum’s daily round-up of international newspapers. Major Mideast papers published front page images of Aylan, including Israel’s Haaretz, Lebanon’s the Daily Star, Saudi Arabia’s Al Sharq, and United Arab Emirates’s Gulf News.

Front pages across Europe revealed a nuanced split. Some newspapers, like Het Nieuwsblad, Irish Examiner, and the Expressen, clearly showed Aylan, his face in the sand. Others, including De Morgen, La Vanguardia, and the Guardian, showed the body at least partly concealed by the Turkish office, or taken from a distance. The most raw was the Independent’s: The photo took up the paper’s entire front page, accompanied by the headline “Somebody’s Child.”

But American newspapers steered far clear of the most painfully poignant pictures, opting instead to use images that mostly focused on the Turkish officer. Aylan’s face and torso were obscured by front-page photos in the Journal and the Washington Post.

Documentary photographer Nina Berman, a photojournalism professor at Columbia University, said the photo raises too many moral questions for a risk-averse U.S. media establishment to accept.

“In the U.S., we tend to be a little squeamish,” Berman said. “Mainstream media has to catch up with what’s happening online — is this picture too much, is it crossing ethical lines? These questions tend to come up when the person has died.”

The picture of Aylan, she said, represents “a gut punch to how cruel and dismissive society can be.”

Another U.S. photojournalist, Melissa Lyttle, echoed Berman’s opinion that U.S. publications prefer to steer clear of shocking images. “American publications more than international ones tend to shy away from dead bodies. It’s a sensitivity issue.”

But as Vox pointed out Thursday, some newspapers’ intentions seem to have less to do with advertising the plight of the migrants and more about societal rubbernecking over tragedy.

British tabloid the Daily Mail published a front page story in late July headlined “The ‘Swarm’ on Our Streets,” featuring four photographs of migrants in various British cities. On Thursday, the same paper struck quite a different tone, with a full, front page picture of Aylan under the headline, “Tiny victim of a human catastrophe.”

Nilufer Demir/DHA/AP

Henry Johnson is a fellow at Foreign Policy. He graduated from Claremont McKenna College with a degree in history and previously wrote for LobeLog. @HenryJohnsoon

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