How does a single photo of a single drowned child affect our shared knowledge?

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“It was not an easy decision to share a brutal image of a drowned child,” acknowledges the Director of Emergencies of Human Rights Watch. As media around the world take this decision to share the photo, it has affected political debate on the crisis of refugees trying to enter Europe. But why? What role does such an image play in our shared knowledge? 

In extensive media coverage, commentators express wide agreement that the image of this child, washed up on a beach in Turkey, stands out from the thousands of others of fleeing refugees and overcrowded boats. For many, it is the innocence of the three-year-old victim that distinguishes it, and the quiet isolation of the figure. For others, it is the body position of the child, arms by his sides as though asleep, or the homey details of his shorts and small sandals. For most, it seems to appeal to our own experience of loving and protecting small children, such that the image seems to be not only Alyan Kurdi, a young Syrian boy, but anyone’s child.

Using this image in a TOK classroom

I give you the choice of seeing this image or not, so I will not include it here.  You can find it easily on a google search, or find it shared through some of the articles in the References at the end of this post.

Choosing whether or not to take this image to a TOK class places a TOK teacher in the same position as news editors, deciding whether to protect their readers from an image that, despite being peaceful, is very disturbing. Worldwide, not all editors have made the same choice.  However, many have decided to share it, even prominently, because of what it communicates of the humanity of the current European refugee crisis.

In a classroom, we have to judge the advisability within our own contexts. Will students be negatively affected by viewing it, after an initial response?  Will others in the school context be upset if they know we have shared the image with our students? Will students, on the other hand, have seen it already in any case, and images much worse in many ways?  As long as an image is not explicitly sexual or violent, should we be protecting students from feeling distress?

Below, I treat the image as acceptable to introduce into class, and you will make your own choices about whether even to read my suggestions!   If you have other ideas or suggestions of your own – on whether to use the image at all, or on how to use it if you do — I encourage you to use the comment or reply feature that comes with this blog.  The questions over using this particular image could provoke thoughts on how we use images in general.

If you do use it, I think it would be effective to plant at the beginning of a class the ethical questions to which I suggest returning at the end of the class for a more nuanced discussion:

If you were the editor of a newspaper, would you choose to print this photograph? Why or why not? What is the right decision, ethically, for an editor to make?

Knowledge questions: ways of knowing

After preparing students, showing the image, explaining its context, and getting their initial reactions, I’d ask these kinds of questions:

What ways of knowing are most involved in your personal reaction to this photograph? What ways of knowing seem to be most involved in the reactions of media commentators in responses you’ve encountered?

In much western philosophical discussion, emotion and imagination are viewed as distractions from more reliable ways of knowing, particularly reason. In what ways, however, could emotion and imagination be argued to lead to knowledge that reason does not? To what extent might they work in combination with reason to lead us to fuller understanding of the world?

Knowledge questions: symbolic representation and shared knowledge

In the media, we extensively encounter language, statistics, photographs, and music in representations of our world. If we’re going to develop our students’ skills of critical thinking, I don’t think that we can ignore photographs and other forms of symbolic representation in a TOK class. I’d ask questions along the line of these:

As we discuss “shared knowledge” in TOK, what is the difference between the knowledge shared in language and the knowledge shared in images? Do images make knowledge claims? In what ways, even without asserting anything, can an image affect our knowledge?

In media use of this image, notice the headlines and captions used in a few of the contexts. To what extent does the photo stand alone in eliciting a response and understanding, and to what extent does understanding depend on how it is framed with language? In what context is it most desirable to attempt to state only facts, and in what context does interpretation most obviously play a desirable role?

If you’re interested in further ideas on treating photographs in TOK, see the “Thinking Critically” section following the chapter on language as a way of knowing in the TOK Course Book and the Discussion Activity page 143.

Knowledge Questions: Ethics and Action

Ethical dilemmas have great potential to bring a class to life and leave students feeling as if they have had “a good discussion” — but, in fact, to lead nowhere in terms of any TOK understanding. Personally, I’ve found that students need to be pushed to articulate why they think as they do, and the group as a whole needs help in debriefing lines of argument in terms of different ethical perspectives (chapter 16, TOK Course Book).

1. Ethical questions:  using the image 

Earlier, I suggested planting the following questions, to return to them at the end of a class discussion to gather more nuanced responses. The questions are likely to elicit many arguments based on conjectured consequences, even though the conclusions might differ.  (What consequences, after all, do we take into account?  And how do we know they will happen? And what weight do we give to one consequence rather than another?) When similar justifications are used to reach opposing conclusions, debriefing discussion can bring out characteristics of utilitarian ethics:

If you were the editor of a newspaper, would you choose to print this photograph? Why or why not? What is the right decision, ethically, for an editor to make?

2. Ethical questions: refugees

The second set of questions is too huge for a TOK class to do more than glance at, in order to recognize different lines of argument based on different ethical perspectives (notably deontology and human rights, or utilitarianism and best consequences).  I’d say, though, it’s very important to link ethical discussions with actions (as in the partnership between TOK and CAS), even though TOK cannot give its time to the “how to” of taking those actions.

What is the right thing for countries to do, ethically, when desperate people want to cross their borders or settle within them?   What ethical responsibility do people grouped into nation states have toward other human beings outside their own borders?

Ideally, a school has another context, such as a program on global issues, which could pick up the issues. Ideally, TOK can work together with an information-based program to keep alive the knowledge questions that are transferable from one situation to another.

Other TOK treatment of refugees

You might find interesting a post I made on World Refugee Day back on June 20, as part of a series on the concept of classification and its implications for knowledge: “World Refugee Day: What do our categories leave out?” Most relevant today is this comment I made at the time: “Sometimes, I’d say, our categories are too big and too general to let us see the individuals within them, but too small and too limited to encourage us to see the humanity we share.”

Conclusion: some useful excerpts

I’m concluding with a few snippets from different news stories because they could prove useful to introduce into a class discussion, to enlarge the context or articulate certain arguments. If you want more, there is certainly no shortage of commentary on this image of the drowned Syrian three-year-old.

You will probably find quite easily, too, comments that are not at all compassionate toward refugees.  In my own country, I also know where to go for  analysis and commentary on government policies toward settlement of refugees, and expect that you’ll also find such sources in your own context if you want them.  (I spare you my raging about Canadian politics!)  If you do use this photo, I’d love to hear how the class goes, if you’d take a moment to add a comment to this blog post.

“The journalist who shot the photo expressed the outrage, despair and helplessness that it would go on to inspire in many people who saw it.

‘There was nothing to do except taking his photograph,’ said Nilufer Demir, who works for Turkey’s Dogan News Agency. ‘There was nothing to do. And that is exactly what I did. I thought this is the only way I can express the scream of his silent body.’ ” from CNN

“Journalists had to stop for a moment and decide how they would handle these images that stir such visceral responses. This week’s newsroom discussions evoked memories of earlier searing photos that influenced public thinking, such as the 1972 image of a little girl fleeing a napalm attack in Vietnam.” from NPR 

“It really did put a human face on this awful humanitarian crisis. It has the power to change the nature of the debate on what is happening and what our reaction should be and how we should deal with it. Against this argument were voices that asked, is it right to upset readers?” Jane Martinsen, head of media desk, Guardian. quoted in NPR 

“Some say the picture is too offensive to share online or print in our newspapers. But what I find offensive is that drowned children are washing up on our shorelines, when more could have been done to prevent their deaths.” Peter Bouckaert, Director, Emergencies, Human Rights Watch

“Justin Forsyth, CEO of Save the Children, said: ‘This tragic image of a little boy who’s lost his life fleeing Syria is shocking and is a reminder of the dangers children and families are taking in search of a better life. This child’s plight should concentrate minds and force the EU to come together and agree to a plan to tackle the refugee crisis.'” from The Guardian 

If you actually want to help Syrian refugee children like the little boy in the viral photo, it’s not enough to care about this single dead child; you have to care about living refugee kids too, and in fact you also have to care about living refugee adults. If the image of the Syrian refugee boy made you feel something, that’s great, but it only matters for making an actual difference in the world if you can apply those feelings to living refugees as well — and, crucially, to yourself.From Vox

“Images of war matter. Some highly emotional photographs from Vietnam — the brutal execution of a Vietcong guerrilla, a naked Vietnamese girl burned by napalm — brought home the horror in a way that words never could. The same has been true more recently; think of the charred corpses of American contractors hanging from a bridge in Falluja, Iraq.

“Now Syria. These two images are capable of changing the narrative, possibly affecting the course of history. That’s all the more reason to handle them, and others, as thoughtfully and with as much awareness as possible. And to remember that, powerful as they are, they are only pieces of the emerging truth.” Margaret Sullivan, in 2013 (so not speaking of this particular image), New York Times. 

“…Syria is just one story. There is also Iraq where three million people have fled for safety, fearing the scourge of ISIS. Over 300,000 persons —just from Africa and Middle East—have crossed into Europe since January this year. Thousands from Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Nigeria, Libya and Afghanistan are fleeing violence and repression. They are jumping fences in Morocco, hiding in trucks to travel to Turkey, riding trains, travelling by dinghies and walking across Hungary or Austria—in their quest for a future. It is estimated that the number of displaced people across the world is 60 million —up from 40 million just five years ago.”  from The New Indian Express

“Behind all the statements and statistics about refugees, asylum seekers, the internally displaced and the stateless are real people with harrowing tales of suffering and loss, as well as hope and ambition… The best way to understand the suffering of others is to hear their stories of hardship, courage, struggle and perseverance.” UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency.


“Troubling image of drowned boy captivates, horrifies”, Reuters, September 2, 2015. (includes image)

slideshow of other images “I am fleeing my home, Syria”, Reuters.

Peter Bouckaert, “Dispatches: Why I Shared a Horrific Photo of a Drowned Syrian Child”, Human Rights Watch. September 2, 2015.

Helena Smith, “Shocking images of drowned Syrian boy show tragic plight of refugees”, The Guardian. September 2, 2015.

LizSly (Washington Post Beirut Bureau Chief), “This image of the body of a Syrian boy drowned today on a Turkish beach is emblematic of the world’s failure in Syria “, @LyzSly, Twitter, September 2, 2015.

Ishaan Tharoor, “A dead baby becomes the most tragic symbol yet of the Mediterranean refugee crisis”, Washington Post. September 2, 2015.

Ashley Fantz and Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN “Syrian toddler’s dad: ‘Everything I was dreaming of is gone’”, CNN. September 3, 2015.

Max Fisher, “The drowned Syrian boy photo is viral social media at its most hollow and hypocritical”, Vox.  September 3, 2015 

Margaret Sullivan, “The Delicate Handling of Images of War”, New York Times. September 14, 2013.

“The Human Story”, UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency.

Shankkar Aiyar, “Alyan Kurdi is Not Alive Because the United Nations is Dead”, The New Indian Express.  September 6, 2015.

Eileen Dombrowski, Lena Rotenberg, and Mimi Bick. Theory of Knowledge Course Companion (in cooperation with the IB). Oxford University Press, 2013.





One thought on “How does a single photo of a single drowned child affect our shared knowledge?

  1. […] single photo of a drowned child that I blogged on – and so did everyone else! – just recently. (“How does a single photo of a single drowned child affect our shared knowledge?”, Sept 9) Yet what is the role of images in the knowledge we […]

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