An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
It's Spokane Public Radio's Spring Fund Drive. Donate now until Tuesday and your donation will be matched up to $30,000!

How Photos Of Crisis Can Shape The Events They Represent


A photo of a 3-year-old Syrian boy lying face down, dead on a Turkish beach, has made Europe's migrant crisis more real for many people. The boy was dressed in a red T-shirt, short blue pants and Velcro tennis shoes. His name was Aylan Kurdi. His father, Abdullah Kurdi, told reporters his family had paid smugglers more than $2,000 to make that journey. He described rough waves, and recounted trying to steer the boat after the captain had jumped overboard.

ABDULLAH KURDI: (Foreign language spoken).

MARTIN: Kurdi explains that the high waves flipped the boat. He reached for his wife and two sons and realized they were dead. The photo of his younger son on that beach has been shared on social media around the world. Peter Bouckaert, with Human Rights Watch, was among the first to share it. He explained on Morning Edition that he felt it was a photo the world needed to see.


PETER BOUCKAERT: What really touched me in the photo was his little sneakers. I'm a father of two boys myself, and one of my favorite moments each day is to dress my boys before they go to school, and I just saw those little sneakers and realized that his parents had dressed him that morning for a very difficult journey.

MARTIN: To talk more about this image and its effect, we're joined now by Kira Pollack. She's the director of photography and visual enterprise at TIME.

Kira, what did you think when you saw this photo?

KIRA POLLACK: Oh, it breaks hearts. It will be a defining image of this crisis. Just the sheer raw impact of the little boy lying face down on the beach, it's such a silent picture, and it's so powerful.

MARTIN: There've been other gripping photographs of this migrant crisis, of families struggling under barbed wire, trapped in train stations. And we should note photographs of other crises around the world - famines, other civil wars. What is different about this one?

POLLACK: I think that what's different about this picture is that it is of one little boy who has a family, and I think that the impact of his story and his individuality is really what grips us - and the fact that he's a toddler.

MARTIN: You're someone who has thought about the power of an image to shape minds and historical legacy. Can you point to other photographs like this in history that have been as defining?

POLLACK: Sure. One picture that immediately comes to mind is the picture that Nick Ut photographed in Vietnam in 1972, of Napalm Girl, and there was the drama of that picture. You could hear the drama. You could hear Kim Phuc, who is the subject of that picture, screaming. She was 9 years old. Again, it was a child. And I think when we see pictures of children it just brings a whole new layer of reality to the situation. And that picture really changed the sentiment of war.

MARTIN: Social media, I imagine, changes how we internalize photos like this too because we don't end up seeing it just once as the cover of a newspaper.

POLLACK: Absolutely. It's everywhere. And what the impact of a front page has, this is tenfold. It's been seen in front of millions of people, and not only a huge audience that has been following the story but also the politicians and the policymakers that can motivate change.

MARTIN: What do you think might change after this photo?

POLLACK: This image is haunting, and I think it already has stirred so many conversations. It will be interesting to see over time what changes, how the European Union responds to the refugee crisis, how many countries in Europe are allowing the refugees in. And it is a real wake-up call, this picture.

MARTIN: Kira Pollack is the director of photography and visual enterprise at TIME.

Thanks so much for talking with us.

POLLACK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.