Death as Still Life: Aylan Kurdi and the Incipient Horror of History Unfolding
By David Waywell
Among the many strange practices first introduced by the Victorians, the death portrait is possibly one of the strangest. Today’s photographers use ultra-fast film stock but the daguerreotypes of the mid-1800s required extremely long exposure times, sometimes lasting minutes. Naturally, the process lent itself to capturing still subjects, including images of the recently departed. It might seem macabre but the reality of the time was such that many grieving parents preferred to have a photograph of their dead child rather than have nothing by which to remember them. The photographs were by their nature highly stylised. The children were presented surrounded by flowers or in poses indicative of the living life now lost. The grim reality of death was barely present.
Last week, when newspapers printed pictures of Aylan Kurdi lying face down in the sand, I thought of the Victorians. Beyond my initial suspicion that some newspapers were engaged in sensationalism befitting the click-bait culture that has descended on parts of Fleet Street, I wondered if the photograph had touched a collective nerve because it represented reality in a way that was not truly representative of reality. It would be hard to think of a more sanitised image of something so terrible beyond the context of the Victorian daguerreotypes. The photograph was a rare thing: upsetting enough to be significant yet not so graphic as to be unpublishable. It was hardly surprising when it caused an outpouring of sympathy on social media.
At the same time, however, I did wonder what this mass of twittering humanity had been doing these past few months when stories of migrant ships sinking in the Mediterranean appeared regularly in the news. What did they think had been washing up on the beaches of Italy and Greece these past months? Has the story really only been about lost shoes and discarded teddy bears? Did they really need the picture of a dead child to understand the enormity of the crisis?
We now have the extraordinary sight of politicians rushing to chase public opinion with regard to immigration. Even David Cameron, originally voicing the normal hostility of the right to immigration was seen to soften before then producing his final position – a soft hard stance, whereby the largely closed-borders policy is explained as the humane way of discouraging migrants from making a dangerous journey to Europe.
As convoluted as the situation becomes, the sight of Aylan Kurdi reminds us that history happens irrespective of human involvement. Aylan Kurdi was dying when other people were looking the other way. People, for the moment, are looking again in the direction of the refugees but this one needless death won’t be the last. The death of Aylan Kurdi was merely an end that occurred at a rare point of confluence where reality and imagination collide.
What we effectively saw last week was social media grieving over a portrait of loss as the Victorians once gazed at their lost loved ones. Would the response have been the same had they been given footage of the soldiers recently killed by the Daesh who wrapped detonator cord wrapped around their necks before igniting it? Think of Muath al-Kasasbeh who they burned alive. Try to think of the faceless children they’ve brutalised.
What I suppose I’m offering is two versions of history. One which touches the public’s imagination and one that lives on in reality, a place occupied by the politician, the aid worker, the soldier, the refugee. The two are quite different yet the media too often treats them as though they’re one. No doubt the sentiments of Bob Geldof are noble and well meant when he offers to shelter four families of refugees between his Kent home and his London apartment. ‘I look at it with profound shame and a monstrous betrayal of who we are and what we wish to be,’ he says, yet he doesn’t quite explain who we indeed are or what we would hope to be. His sentimental readings of the crisis has the luxury of being able to gloss over the deeply political question of ‘what we would hope to be’. That is not the case across Europe. In the case of Hungary the ‘what we wish to be’ seems to be something akin to a nation devoid of a sizable Muslim population. Or that’s what we can interpret from the words of Hungary’s PM who said on Thursday that ‘I think we have a right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country.’
We are taught that such statements are outrageous but, in truth, they are only shocking because they are spoken in public. Similar judgements will have been made in cabinet rooms across Europe because it is the hard reality of statements such as these that define centuries. History as it unfolds is brutal, cruel and usually so ugly that we would barely wish to look.
Aylan Kurdi lying on the beach was a moment of our looking but what was absent from the photograph were the cold geopolitics that brought the situation about. In Russia, Putin supports Syria’s Assad in order to counter the influence of the United States and ensure that Russian has access to its only port in the Mediterranean in Tartus. America meanwhile is distracted and will remain so. Mexican immigration and wall building will dominate the forthcoming election.
None of this is to decry the power of the public’s imagination nor the value of emotion. I’m merely saying, sotto voce, I wouldn’t want to decide what to do next. This truth is that good policies are rarely written on the back of bad headlines. Two years ago headline writers proclaimed a victory for the common sense of the British public when parliament rejected the Prime Minister’s request to bomb Syria. We have no way of knowing how history would have unwound if we had, though it’s hard to believe that every choice would have ended in the current humanitarian crisis.
With hindsight, the current situation seems to have been predictable but it also shows how history really doesn’t care how we imagine it. Good decisions sometimes precipitate bad ends whilst even the dumbest politician can look wise after the fact. The only certainty is that future generations will look back on many of the decisions of today with the same sense of disbelief as we look back on the death portraits of the previous long century.