The Power of an Image

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A picture is worth a thousand words, even more so in the digital age than ever before. My experience has been that images are amazing things, with the power to anger, comfort or heal. They have the power to change opinion, to reflect harsh realities. And the last two days have been fraught with all the baggage that comes from one tiny image with a huge message. You know the one I’m talking about, of course. Who hasn’t seen the image of little Aylan’s still body on the beach? Who hasn’t been moved by the thought of a little boy drowning for the mistakes of his countrymen? I know I have. Yesterday while driving on the highway to pick up my kids from school, I listened to NPR’s account of refugees like Aylan’s family and their dangerous trek through Hungary, and I burst into tears. I had to navigate to the side of the road to calm down before I caused an accident. Why? Because it could be me, it could be my child’s drowned body, it could be any of us.
If you’re on any type of social media you’re being bombarded these days with images of refugees. Aylan’s wasn’t the first drowned body I saw, but for some reason his has become the most famous. Politicians and celebrities, authors and the average Joe, all want to discuss it. Thankfully, it has allowed the likes of Germany’s Angela Merkel to announce a wonderful change in policy towards refugees. Whether it becomes reality for the entire European Union remains to be seen. But the image has certainly brought out the good and the bad in an entire planet of people. Few crises have stirred the consciousness as this has, although one could argue that children have been killed not only in Syria but also elsewhere including Africa for decades. Why are we just now getting around to acknowledge that a problem exists?
I’m talking about the average American and European of course. The refugee crisis in Syria hasn’t been dinner table conversation or social media shares before. Yes, the Muslim world has had the Palestinian issue to talk about, but as someone mentioned on Twitter yesterday, pictures of dead Palestinian babies haven’t stirred anyone to action so why should this little boy’s death be any different? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s the incongruence of a child lying on the beach as if he’s sleeping, perhaps it’s a position we have seen our own children and grandchildren lie in as toddlers so many times. Perhaps it’s the signaling of a loss of innocence not just for our children but for us. I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve been crying an awful lot the last couple of days.
The interesting thing in all this is that a large body of people, especially Muslims, are unwilling to look at or share this image. There are rants by a number of people I know and follow about leaving the dignity of that little boy and his family intact. Sharing the image somehow implies heartlessness, as if we are desecrating his memory. I beg to differ. Did we care about his dignity when bombs were raining down on his head? Did we care about his dignity when his family had to escape, hide like animals in caves? Did we care about his dignity when he got on that boat with the fake life jackets? We didn’t care, because we were too busy living our comfortable lives. And the real reason we don’t want to see his picture is because we don’t want to be reminded of what is going on around us. What human beings are capable of.
A few months ago I visited the National Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. I spent hours looking at the images of concentration camps, the models of trains that brought unsuspecting Jews to their deaths, the piles of hair and shoes salvaged from their bodies. I didn’t shy away from seeing evidence of evil in the human race, although then too I cried. I broke down twice during that single day, because I could see myself reflected in the faces of not just the victims but also the perpetrators. We are all human and we need to see what we can do to each other.
Dignity and humanity is not in hiding from the truth. Being a kind person doesn’t mean refusing to look at or share images of someone who died unjustly. Being human demands from us something more: it demands that we face our own fears, be ready to accept the pain and hurt and anger that comes from seeing a child drown on the beach, a girl killed in Africa, a man murdered in Iraq. For as long as we don’t see those images, we can pretend that everything is okay with the world, we can forget that we too could be holding a drowned body of a child on a beach one day. We too could be riding a train to a camp, not knowing what lies ahead.
After I composed myself on the highway yesterday, I decided that I would share the image on Facebook and Twitter even though it makes me cringe every time I look at it. Why? Because it motivated me to do something, anything, if only to feel more, to read more, to learn more. When my children came home I hugged them so hard they complained. I actually spent time with them that evening, instead of working on my computer. I realized how blessed I am, and how comfortable my life is.
Imagine if everyone experienced what I experienced by looking at a disturbing image. Maybe we could actually do something to make things better. Our biggest problem is that we think we have no control, that we can’t do anything because we are ordinary citizens. But in reality there are so many things to do today to help refugees, as well as steps to take to prevent crises like these from recurring in the future. From donating to organizations and helping refugees in our communities, to petitioning our governments to increase refugee quotas and refusing to vote for those who prefer war instead of peace, we can do a lot. Even better, we can teach our children to be loving and kind, promote interfaith, inter-ethnic and multicultural diversity, and prepare our future generations to be better than we were. We need to raise peacemakers not warmongers, democratic leaders not oppressors, kind human beings not ostriches who put their heads in the sand. And that starts with us, in our homes. We can do a lot, and if one image of a drowned child can help us see this, then I say let’s share it. For everyone’s sake.
Saadia Faruqi is an interfaith activist, editor of Interfaith Houston, editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret Literary Journal and author of Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan, available in June. Follow her @saadiafaruqi and on her website at