According to De Volkskrant Editor-in-chief Philippe Remarque, the picture merely illustrated tougher security controls, which meant people of possible Muslim appearance were likely to be checked. He argued that the man in the picture represented a random traveller, not a suspect. Nevertheless, a judge ruled that the combination of the photo and text was a violation of privacy. It gave the impression that the man pictured was somehow related to Schiphol’s safety. Financial compensation was justified.
This case shows journalists have to think about the implications of what they publish. In the case of photos, it also means thinking about consequences for the people portrayed.
The Importance of Context
According to Vaughn Wallace, former photo editor at Al Jazeera, it is important to look past the image when refugees are involved. “Their stories don’t end just where the photograph is taken. So it is important to me to look for images that help promote the dignity of the subjects beyond even the photograph.” However, it is questionable whether it is possible to take all consequences of publication into account.
Aylan, for example, became a symbol used by politicians, artists and activists alike. His image was used to support a variety of different opinions and views. “Everybody fights over iconic images. And in the end they perhaps lose their original meaning. It is the same with people running around with Che Guevara T-shirts as a symbol, rather than understanding who Che Guevara was,” says Peter Bouckaert, Emergencies Director at Human Rights Watch and one of the first people to share Aylan’s image on social media.
Aylan’s family were victims of a fight over an iconic image, as Bouckaert describes. The father, Abdullah Kurdi, found out first-hand how powerful a symbol his son became. He became a political pawn and was invited to visit by Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdoğan, as well as by the Iraqi Kurds and rebels in Syria fighting ISIS. Abdullah even saw his dead son portrayed on banners and posters. Could journalists have foreseen this?
Should they have been more aware of the consequences of using Aylan’s image? Would it have helped if from the start more background information on Aylan’s journey and family had been given?
The photo of the traumatised and dust-covered five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, taken in an ambulance after a bombardment in Aleppo, raises similar questions. Just like Aylan’s, this image went viral, after which many newspapers decided to publish it. And just as in Aylan’s case, different meanings and views were ascribed to the photo. Chinese state television even suspected it was fake. The Russian government talked of propaganda. It was also rumoured that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the photo, supported suicide bombers.
What might be important here is that the photo was not published by an independent press agency, like the photo of Aylan, but by the Aleppo Media Centre: a group of activists who report on the atrocities of the Syrian government. Even though it is almost impossible for western journalists to report from the ground in Aleppo, and using such material is the only way to show what’s going on there, that the photo was taken by activists weakens its authority. By questioning the authority of the photographer, the photo itself is also questioned.
Again, context determines how to value a photo, context that, in a digital age, needs to be examined again and again. The work of a journalist does not stop when the photo is taken and published. Providing context is equally important. Editorial offices need to ask themselves whether or not there is enough information to interpret what they see in the image.
To what extent do journalistic interests weigh against other interests, such as privacy and dignity of the portrayed persons and their families?
Is it justified to publish a sensitive photo just because it is aesthetically attractive? In cases like those above, it is of utter importance that journalists stick to the facts and give background information.