Reflections on some difficult material

As this week’s film progressed, I found that I turned away from the photographs, changing to a different tab on my browser so that I could hear the narration without having to look at the difficult material.  Nor could I look at them in the reading material, and covered the images with a piece of paper as I tried to read the words. The story of the little boy that filled the news in 2015 then came up in the week’s presentations and forums. This saddened me immensely.  His name was Alan Kurdi and he was three years old.  He was drowned with his mother and brother, a family desperate to find safety. His father survived. The photographer of this image, Nilüfer Demir, was an agency photographer. Her photo, according to one report “went viral almost instantly” (, 2015).  The Time website continues to run a film with the story behind the photograph.  (I noted that it is mentioned in the film about how the image should no longer be shared on social media, while at the same time including film images of him  and allowing a ‘share’ option.)

In 2015, at the time of publication, the image of this tiny boy lying on the beach could be seen openly in the UK on TV screens, social media accounts, and supermarket newspaper shelves.  Did its widespread repetition change anything?  One year afterwards his father said that it hadn’t.

“”Everyone claimed they wanted to do something because of the photo that touched them so much. But what is happening now? People are still dying and nobody is doing anything about it.” […]
Mr Kurdi, a Syrian Kurd from the town of Kobane, told German newspaper Bild that it was right for the photo of his son to be published.  “These things must be shown to make clear to people what is happening, But in the end the picture did not change much.””  (in Ensor, J, 2016,

I feel it was a very brave response by the father following the publication of the image, and his hope of wider change was clearly underlying this. It is sad to think that he felt it did not bring about such change, though it was picked up by politicians in the UK who it is reported allowed more refugees to enter as a result.  There is such a lot to consider here, a political situation too deep to cover in blog posts; a subject area which I am not experienced in or knowledgeable of enough to comment on.  I am only able to respond as a human being, and to express my own sadness and grief at the capabilities of human beings to inflict suffering onto one another.  The  above is one tragedy we have covered by cameras among many other very difficult examples presented this week. The image I referred to cannot be unseen and there lives a memory of this little boy in my head.

This session also discussed the desensitization of consumers of media, and indeed we see so much news about the suffering of others that this term is often used.  One definition of the term ‘desensitize’ is to “Make (someone) less likely to feel shock or distress at scenes of cruelty or suffering by overexposure to such images.”  


But if we consider that sense is a bodily faculty, “by which the body perceives an external stimulus”  then repeated viewing is not impacting upon the sense function itself and I would perhaps describe the repeated viewing of events as derealizing rather than desensitizing or anaesthetising.  Susan Sontag wrote “An event known through photographs certainly becomes more real than it would have if one had never seen the photographs […] But after repeated exposure to images it also becomes less real” (Sontag, 1979, p20).  But viewing an horrific event repeatedly in photographs surely doesn’t make the event any less real, it rather skews our individualised response to it, creating a dismissive response.   Some suggest that in viewing such material we link it instead to our own personal situation, impacting upon our own sense of happiness and wellbeing: “We would intuitively expect that news items reflecting war, famine and poverty might induce viewers to ruminate on such topics. But the effect of negatively valenced news is much broader than that – it can potentially exacerbate a range of personal concerns not specifically relevant to the content of the program itself.” Davey, G.C.L. (2012)



Davey, G.C.L. (2012) The Psychological Effects of TV News: Negative news on TV is increasing, but what are its psychological effects? Psychology Today. Jun 19, 2012. Available at: (Accessed 22 March 2019)

Ensor, J. (2016) Photo of my dead son has changed nothing’, says father of drowned Syrian refugee boy Alan Kurdi, Telegraph online, 3 September 2016. Available at: (Accessed  21 March 2019 )

Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin.

Time. com (2015)
(Accessed 22 March 2019)