It was around 6am on September 2 when Turkish photojournalist Nilüfer Demir was struck by the sight of the body of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old child found lying face down in the waves of a Turkish beach after a migrant boat capsized in the Mediterranean.
Despite the confronting scene, as a photographer, Demir didn’t have time to freeze or to second-guess. She started taking pictures.
Demir’s photographs of Aylan lying at water’s edge and of his corpse being carried from the beach by a Turkish police officer, rapidly spread through social media and were splashed across the front pages of newspapers in Europe the next day.
The images put a human face to the plight of the tens of thousands fleeing Syria and other areas under the influence of Islamic State. They have become a powerful symbol in the fiery political debate around the European refugee crisis.
It also raised questions around the editorial decision to publish the graphic images. On September 5 foreign correspondent Muhammad Lila tweeted a smiling photo of Aylan in a playground and said Aylan’s aunt told him this was how she wanted the child to be remembered.
During a panel discussion about ethical conundrums at the Walkley Foundation’s Storyology conference The Weekend Australian editor Michelle Gunn said it was absolutely correct to publish images.
“I think the picture of the little boy in that case galvanised opinion and really prompted the world to think about what was going on in terms of the refugee crisis in Syria in a way that perhaps acres of analysis that we’d certainly been running in the lead up to it didn’t,” Ms Gunn said.
‘I think that there are certain images, like the little boy and maybe like the napalm picture that is very famous from the Vietnam war that really have the potential to turn the tide of history’
“I think that there are certain images, like the little boy and maybe like the napalm picture that is very famous from the Vietnam war that really have the potential to turn the tide of history.”
Politics reporter for Buzzfeed News Alex Lee, who was also speaking on the panel, said she was initially revolted when the image appeared unsolicited in her Facebook news feed but soon changed her mind as she recognised the power of the image.
“I think a problem with the way we now share news is that images like that, is everyone will see them, regardless of how much hiding or trying to put them behind a certain gatekeeper,” Ms Lee said.
“I think that it was right for (Buzzfeed) to show it and I think that when it’s obviously impacting so many people, and so many people have been moved by this picture and sharing it, then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t as well.”
The photographer Demir works for Dogan News Agency and over the past 12 years has photographed many refugees launching rubber boats from the beaches of Bodrum in Turkey.
On the day she photographed Aylan, Demir was on duty at a beach on the Akyarlar coast of Bodrum to document a group of Pakistani refugees attempting to cross from Turkey to Greece.
In an interview with Vice shortly after the incident she said photographers who work in the area have unfortunately grown used to the sight of boat remains.
‘I would have much preferred to have taken one of Aylan playing on the beach than photographing his corpse. What I saw has left a terrible impression that keeps me awake at night’
“On the one hand, I wish I hadn’t had to take that picture. I would have much preferred to have taken one of Aylan playing on the beach than photographing his corpse. What I saw has left a terrible impression that keeps me awake at night,” Demir told Vice.
“Then again, I am happy that the word finally cares and is mourning the dead children. I hope that my picture can contribute to changing the way we look at immigration in Europe, and that no more people have to die on their way out of a war.
“If the picture makes Europe change its attitudes towards refugees, then it was right to publish it. I have taken many photographs of the refugee drama and none had such an effect on the public consciousness. But I certainly don’t wish for more of those pictures.”