Iconic Photos: A look at Omran Daqneesh and Aylan
by Jessica Smith (UGA MSW ’19)

Dignity is “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect”. My focus is what does that mean in relation to the media especially relating to photographs and videos. Is dignity a key component or is it exempt from criticism because of the influence of change that it enacts? Most of us have seen the photo of the “Iconic Syrian boy”. It stirs our souls and breaks our hearts to see the worst day of this child’s life on film. We are captured by his shock, engrossed in his story, compelled to act somehow on his behalf, and reach new thresholds of empathy for an entire country. This photograph is changing hearts, minds, and possibly policy around the world. It ties us to the people of Syria and brings our focus to their country.

However, in this photograph I do not see a Syrian child or devastation. The first thing that I saw was an individual without any respect for his experiences or value as a person. He became a symbol without his knowledge, literally a poster child for war. As strong as a message as that conveys, his rights as human being and vulnerability as a child were thrown to the wind. Not too diminish the change that will inevitability come from this photograph, where do the lines of “right to now” intersect with the rights of the child? Coverage of children in crisis leads to change, but it leads to a conversation about exploitation, dignity, and vulnerability.

It brings back the reactions of photos of Aylan, a three-year-old that drowned while trying to seek refuge from Syria found on the Turkish shore. Many took to social media such as facebook and twitter to express their dismay. The hashtag #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik” meaning “Humanity Washes Ashore” took over twitter. Photos of the child were seen everywhere, it was shared many times, made into memes as well as tribute videos and many said that it was necessary to post these photos. However, there were also individual voices and media outlets that struggled with the photo of the deceased.

They gave rise to how his family must feel or all of the things that his mother may have done to prevent this but was unable to. The dignity of Aylan was questioned. It was proposed that how Aylan’s photo was published was a determinant of how much his dignity was preserved. There were three main angles or types of shots in circulation: Aylan laying facedown in the sand concealing his face, Aylan laying face down in the sand with part of his face exposed, and Aylan being carried from the water by a Turkish official with his face angled away from the camera. It was discussed that the two photos without his face showing were more considerate to Aylan and his more likely to be accepted seeing as receiving the consent of the child was not possible and consent in general did not seem to be not explored.

It is up to you if you would like to view these photos, but due to their widespread coverage you may have already viewed them. I could not post them here without bringing the question of “would I be exploiting the children by continuing to share these photos?”. There are many questions and until there are clearer answers, I will not contribute to their distribution.

Things to Consider:

  1. Are the children’s lack of consent and diminished dignity worth the change enacted by these photos?
  2. What are the most effective ways to enact change? Why?
  3. Can children’s dignity in photos be sacrificed for the greater good?
  4. Are iconic photos of vulnerable populations necessary for large-scale change?



Should brutal images of children be seen? – NY Times.com


What is the real meaning of dignity? -Psychology Today

Brother of Syrian boy in iconic photo dies – CNN.com


Video “British Aid Worker: Massacres happening daily in Aleppo”

Video “This is what it looks like to be lucky in Syria”

Video “Story of little Syrian boy moves CNN anchor to tears”