Shocking – Syria and the Dehumanisation of Misery?


Aleppo, November 2014, Credit: Getty Images, Baraa Al Halabi

Did the picture of Omran Daqneesh shock you? Upset you?  The images and story of “The boy in the ambulance” surely pushed buttons in most of us, highlighting graphically the desperate siege of Aleppo and its residents, screaming “look at this, you must look at this”  in an anaesthetised or uncaring world.

But here’s a thing: Would all the people (including me) who are upset by this photo give a thought about his life/welfare/education/family/prospects if he hadn’t just been pulled out of a pile of rubble?

That’s the view from some of those who know much more about all this have been critical. “Self-serving weepy obsession,” to paraphrase one comment from a close friend who has spent the summer volunteering in a refugee camp. Tough words, but quite apart from editors and readers not really caring, can a child really give consent for their photo to be used like this?  Is it right to use photos of traumatised bodies for shock value? Isn’t it just dehumanising? Children,  like Phan Thi Kim Phuc,  photographed in similar situations have said they have never been able to escape the legacy of the published images

But there is a larger point here too, ironically illustrated by  the juxtaposition  of two  editorials  in Friday’s Guardian – one on  Omran  Daqneesh  as  a  wake-up  call  on Aleppo,  and the other  on race equality in the UK.

I share the view – put forward by my friend (who happens to be white) – that victimisation and dehumanisation is a problem area for our media. It’s not just that there are rarely stories of middle eastern children who aren’t living in a refugee camp or covered in blood – it is more that such a lop-sided view is dehumanising and arguably teaches us to see black and middle eastern people only as either victims or perpetrators, never as full human beings – as bodies first and people second.

This is close, in my view, to some views on black deaths in police custody. It is not difficult to see why the Black Lives Matter campaign has such a strong resonance in the UK and why race quality is rightly rising up the political agenda.

My Calais correspondent argues that the photos of Omran Daqneesh show how as a middle-eastern person, he has less of a right to privacy and to consent than a white child would.  That he’s presented as a symbol, not a human being. That using traumatised and injured people for shock value is dehumanising and creates the troubling narrative described above.

I understand but think there’s another view: newspapers should be slow to sanitise the horrors of war. There is a duty to hold a mirror up to the world for their readers. And the strangulation of Aleppo and its people still hasn’t attracted the attention it should or needs. Public interest trumps consent on this one I think. It is not good that it takes bloodied kids being pulled out of rubble to get enough focus, but sadly not surprising.

I agree about the (sometimes unintended) presumption of victimhood and the consequences of that – but how else, in reality, to report Aleppo right now? Not at all would probably be the dominant view. I also disagree that there is an absolute right to consent.

Sometimes, the circumstances make consent impossible. Sometimes there is no realistic right to privacy – including when there is an overwhelming public interest.

Shock tactics have always played a role for in political debate. Facts and policy arguments may engage your mind and change what you think.  But images are more likely to change how you feel.  And for better or worse, how you feel is more likely than what you think to make you act.

This article also appears in The Huffington Post. An appeal to aid Aleppo is here. You can support humanitarian work at the Calais Refugee Camp here



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