Toddler's image stops us in our tracks

Story highlights

  • Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Images of migrant crisis become routine -- then photo emerges of toddler washed up on a beach
  • She says iconic photos historically stir consciousness

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. She writes on war, including war and cinema. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. Follow her on Twitter @ruthbenghiat.

(CNN)Images of migrants' suffering, and of humanitarian rescue, have filled our news feeds for more than a year now. Men, women, children -- more than 300,000 on the move so far this year -- fleeing war, poverty, political repression, trudging over deserts and back roads, with only the clothes on their backs; packed into stadiums, boats, detention centers; arriving exhausted, or dead, on Mediterranean shores.

They have become such a common sight in the media that we hardly see them.
    Ruth Ben-Ghiat
    Then an image comes along that stops us in our tracks: a toddler, lying dead on a beach in Turkey.
    He is one of 12 refugees who drowned while trying to reach the Greek island of Kos -- a Syrian, according to the governor's office in Turkey's Mugla province. The photo has gone viral, often accompanied by a Turkish hashtag that translates, in English, as "flotsam of humanity." The provocative phrase -- flotsam being stuff, in the plural, that washes up after a shipwreck -- is meant to denounce a politics of neglect by European governments that insults migrants' and refugees' dignity.
    Why was this photograph selected to spark action, and why has it struck a chord in a way others have not?
    To answer this, it's useful to think about what makes some images iconic, with an impact that transcends the time and place in which they were created. Such images are endlessly circulated (and often reproduced or recreated in other mediums) because they seem to communicate an essential truth, not only about the situation that spawned them, but about human nature -- particularly in conditions of crisis and adversity.
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    Children have often been the subjects of such "timeless" photos. They are the most distressing casualties of situations of war and upheaval, and their images convey raw emotion that makes for compelling photography. Think of the little baby crying in terror after the bombing of Hiroshima, or the image of a 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, running away from a napalm attack in Vietnam, naked and blind with fear, or the photo of an emaciated little girl trying to reach a feeding station, collapsed on the ground in South Sudan while a vulture waits nearby.
    If we turn to this week's photograph of the toddler, the horror we may feel at first glance comes in part from its context:
    Here is a small child on a Mediterranean beach, in late summer. Instead of enjoying the waves, he lies there lifeless. He is not at the beach with his family, he is alone, attended only by the Turkish officials seemingly in charge of documenting him, one in writing and the other with a camera. The presence in the background of two men in casual clothing standing around and talking -- as one would see on a beach in summer -- makes the contrast between the right (fun) and dreadfully wrong (death) narratives all the more wrenching.
    Those narratives have often collided in recent months, as vacationers around the Mediterranean have come into contact with refugees. It is a great irony that places like Greece's Kos, or the Italian island of Lampedusa, both prized by tourists for their natural beauty, are also places where people are confronted with sights many don't want to see.
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    The drama of the latest wave of mass movements into Central Europe, via the Balkans, is heightened by the fact that it has become more difficult to look away. Everyday spaces, in the heart of cities and towns, have been turned into temporary shelters and de facto detention centers, or even sites of death: train stations, stadiums, marketplaces, and ordinary highways -- like the one in Austria that turned out to hold over 70 dead migrants, stuffed inside a truck.
    The media often produce homogenous images of the migrant crisis, sometimes due to logistics (for example, the need to shoot boats with telephoto lenses from limited vantage points). The latest images of migrants and refugees in Hungary, in their urban backdrop, can seem all too familiar: exhausted dirty faces, people collapsing on the ground, pushing against authorities. It is the nature of migration: people are almost always depicted en masse, with some particularly arresting individuals or families singled out.
    With the repetition of images, viewers can become desensitized. The state of crisis can seem normal and even routine. It takes something "out of the ordinary" -- even within the spectacle of human suffering -- to grab our attention.
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    Sadly, the migrant and refugee crisis shows no signs of abating. It has become a top priority for many governments, including Germany. Its political ramifications, in terms of domestic and international politics, are still unfolding.
    It seems timely, then, to think about the role of images in shaping our ideas about migrants and refugees -- children and adults alike -- and what remains of those images in us, even after we click through or turn the page.
    The photo of the drowned toddler stays. It is deadly calm: there are no sunken boats, exhausted crowds, or urgent situations at hand. There is a child on a beach in summer, who will never play again.