Solidarity for a fraction of a second

No other picture from the refugee crisis has burned itself into the collective memory like that of the drowned refugee boy Alan Kurdi. But has the photo, which has been shared thousands of times on Facebook and Twitter, had any political impact?

It was September 2, 2015, when on the timelines of countless social media users a picture appeared which they wouldn't forget so quickly. "It burnt itself into my retina." "If this picture doesn't change the world, we have all failed." "I had to cry." These were some of the comments people all over the world tweeted, deeply shocked and moved by what they saw: the lifeless body of a child, drowned like so many before him, a victim of the war in his home country Syria, a victim of the EU's rigid closed-doors policy, a victim of inhuman people smugglers. For the first time the consequences of the refugee crisis that had escalated dramatically in that year became so starkly visible for so many people. Using the hashtag #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik ("Humanity washed ashore"), thousands of people tried to tweet the shock, sadness and anger from their souls.

The dead boy's scream

Two-year-old Alan Kurdi drowned when the smugglers' boat in which he was crossing the 5 kilometres that separate Bodrum in Turkey from the Greek island of Kos capsized. His mother, his five-year-old brother and nine other people died along with him. The photo of Alan, whose body washed up on a beach after the accident, was taken by Turkish photographer Nilüfer Demir. Talking in an interview Demir said that she had wanted to express "the scream of his silent body" through the picture. And that is precisely what she achieved. No other photo from the tragedy-filled summer of 2015 has triggered such a global response as the one of little Alan. Many commentators in Europe had high hopes that this picture that hurts so much would also move something in the hearts of the leading politicians; that it would finally galvanize them into action.

"The photographer's lense is the eye of the human conscience. That is why such pictures should appear in newspapers. They should be shown on display boards. They are unbearable for anyone who has a soul," wrote Croatian author Miljenko Jergović in the daily newspaper Jutarnji list, concluding: "Only the unbearableness of this photo and all future terrible and painful photos can move the world to show true solidarity." The Turkish newspaper Hürriyet even credited the picture with the power to end the Syrian war: "If this photo didn't exist, who could explain the suffering created by the war? Remember, it was also a photo that played a key role in ending the Vietnam War."

For a moment it seemed the picture of Alan would indeed have the power to change policies. Right after the tragedy British Prime Minister David Cameron increased the number of refugees the UK was willing to take in from around 200 to 20,000. He said he had been "deeply moved" by the photo. But shortly afterwards the EU interior ministers once again rejected the quota system for distributing refugees proposed by the European Commission. Disappointed, the Spanish newspaper El Periódico de Catalunya wrote: "Not two weeks have passed since the pictures of the little Syrian boy Alan stirred the Europeans' conscience and softened the harsh stance of several governments on taking in refugees. But already everything has gone back to the way it was before."

In the world's collective memory

Has the picture of little Alan led to more solidarity with refugees? If so, then only for a fraction of a second in history. It has been overtaken by other events: the terror in Paris and the New Year's Eve attacks in Cologne. The European public was quick to identify those responsible for the attacks and mete out collective punishment: the refugees. But the picture has nonetheless become a symbol, taken up and paraphrased by graphic designers, amateur illustrators and artists the world over. There was Charlie Hebdo with its controversial cartoon, or the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who recreated Alan by posing lying face-down on a beach. And on Twitter too, drawings inspired by the sad image of the dead child still turn up regularly. In this way the image will remain forever engraved in the world's collective memory.