An image of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old child who died escaping Syria, went viral in 2015. Depicting his small body lying face-down in the sand of a Turkish beach, this photograph prompted visceral emotional responses from online spectators, inciting awareness and reaching world leaders. UK Prime Minister David Cameron was "deeply moved" but did little regarding refugee policy changes. By 2016, support had waned and more EU member states closed their borders to Syrians. In this paper, I explore the implications of photographs of human rights crises, focusing on the death of Alan Kurdi. I interpret the widespread sharing of this image on social platforms as a sort of moral pornography, and call into question our current ocular epistemology, reading the proliferation of this image as what Wendy Hesford calls "spectacular rhetoric". Questioning the neutrality of using visual spectacles to spur empathy from distant others, I interrogate the current mode of human rights photography and how it systematically leaves other non-victim parties (such as spectators or perpetrators) out of the parameters of legibility, causing apathy. Evaluating statistical data on donations earmarked for aiding Syrian refugees, I propose solutions to turn short-term shock into material relief for victims.
Download Full Text (916 KB)
Zou, Carolyn, "Extending Empathy: From Photograph to Engagement" (2020). Research Days Posters Spring 2020. 99.