The Picture Speaks A Million Words!


Dr Neelam Verma

The body of that little boy lying face down on the sands of a Turkish beach with strong waves splashing on the lifeless body,  shook the world up from its deepest ignorant slumber. Not that we didn’t know that there were people running away from the Syrian crisis, that we did know those people were human beings before they were called just “refugees”, not that we didn’t know that these human beings were desperate to flee from their miserable lives, that we didn’t know that during the fleeing process, thousands die each year, that in times of crisis women and children bear the most brunt, that the Syrian crisis has gone on far too long to be ignored etc etc etc.

Every other day, we hear of boat loads of people reaching shores of Europe, Austria from Africa, Lebanon, Libya, Syria etc. Some reach their destinations alive but battered physically and emotionally, others are stuck in ship holds and die for lack of oxygen and still others drown at sea. Unfortunately, whenever such a crisis occurs and takes humanitarian proportions, the real cause of crisis is forgotten. Does anyone remember today that the Syrian crisis began after an anti-government rally in 2011 turned ugly as the government crackdown on peaceful protesters and thus a rebel group called Free Syrian Army was born and the situation today has reached unmanageable proportions to the extent that the innocents are ready  to sacrifice whatever they have for that remote chance of a good life. Syrian Kurds have been denied citizenship by its government and Kurds are deemed to “be stateless people.”

But why does Alan Kurdi’s story hurts more than anyone else’s? Little innocent children have known to perish during natural or unnatural calamities all over the world – young ones who have barely learned to walk or talk fall prey to the insanity of the world around them. Is it because this little one along with his five-year old brother Ghalib could, one day, become a Canadian citizen? And go on to come a positive contributor of society. Or he could have become a doctor or a researcher and discovered a cure to cancer –  maybe.

Because a picture is worth a thousand words and speaks out so loud that it can travel the continent without a caption. A little lifeless body lying face down on a beach – a place where a child his age would build sand castles with little red buckets and spoons and frolic happily around trampling on them – with his tiny shoes still on his feet and his clothes intact, can break the toughest heart. Just watching the news in the safe confines of your home can easily move you to tears. It is beyond imagination what those little boys along with their mother would have endured just before life was snuffed out of them. And so many others who have met the same fate. Some solace to the surviving father that his family is not merely a statistics in their struggle for survival.

Talking about pictures of gory events published in the media, not many are published due to moral and ethical reasons. The black and white picture of a scalding little naked girl, victim of atomic bombs during the Vietnam War of 1972 when a Vietnamese plane accidently dropped naplam on its own troops and civilians, trying to escape the bombs flying behind her, was shared in the media so many times that it remains etched in people’s memories forever. The face of a little child buried after the Union Carbide leaked gas in Bhopal, India in 1984 and published on the front page of India Today, drew international attention to the plight of thousands. And this was when the internet was not born.

But time and again it is debated on the true ethics of publishing gory pictures of the dead and deadly events. Years ago when working for the Indian Express as a cub reporter, I was asked to cover a bloody crime scene involving a local politician. Despite having access to the gory pictures, I decided not to forward them to my editor and the story was published without the exclusive pictures. Later, I was reprimanded by my editor for not publishing the pictures, since I had them and my argument that the images would shock many, did not hold ground. I was only trying to shield the reader from the atrocities committed by their leader. Was it my responsibility to act as a moral police, my editor screamed?

Another time I decided to publish pictures of yet another brutal and fatal crime scene with color pictures of the bloody event. Not too many, just two and my editor agreed to publish them as the incident had taken place in a national hockey player’s home. In letters to the editor, some readers appreciated the decision, others found them unwanted and said the article could have been printed without the gory images. They said that the aim of the article is to draw attention and inform the reader, not traumatize them.

As the debate of shocking visuals continue, there is no way that a reader today can be shielded from such images. You need just one little like on the social media for an image to go viral. You don’t have to go hunting for such images – they make their way into your inbox, very quietly, sneakily galvanizing global attention.

Cute little Alan’s image lying quietly face down on that beach certainly has shaken our sensibilities and forced us out of our comfort zones to do something for all those millions of refugees leaving Syria in droves for a better chance at life. Alan’s picture has given a silent voice to the millions of migrants rotting in refugee camps or those still trying to flee. This picture certainly has spoken a million words, not a thousand!

Neelam Verma is a Coquitlam-based writer-editor, who has written previously for The LINK.