Misja Pekel and Maud van de Reijt

What decisions are made before photographs of refugees and war victims appear in our newspapers, or as video and stills on our computers, mobiles and television screens? Should journalists be more critical when publishing and interpreting such pictures? These were among the questions we explored in our documentary “Sea of Pictures”.

Specifically, we looked at the editorial process for publishing the image of Aylan Kurdi, the toddler whose body was found on the shores of Bodrum in Turkey. This and other pictures used in telling the refugee and migration story have stirred up discussion in editorial offices everywhere, but what have been the dilemmas faced by photo-editors and other journalists and what lessons have we learnt?

The first and trickiest question is, to publish or not to publish? Within 12 hours the image of Aylan Kurdi taken on 2 September 2015 reached 20 billion screens via social media.

The next day it was on front pages worldwide. The refugee crisis, which until that moment had mainly been expressed in numbers and figures, suddenly had a human face people could relate to. Politicians referred to the picture in national parliaments. Advocates and opponents of a more generous asylum policy tried to embrace it as a symbol. Nevertheless, the publication was controversial: readers immediately questioned whether or not it was appropriate to publish images of such a young, dead victim.

Media felt they needed to justify their choice. Editorial comments on the process were legion. Journalists interviewed colleagues about their concerns. Although the photo was widely shared online, publishing in traditional media stirred up emotions. Was it permissible to print photos of such a young child who had just died? Wasn’t that bad taste, from the viewpoint of the boy’s family and the readers who saw their newspaper at breakfast? Refugees die at sea every day, so why publish this particular photo? Here’s what some editorial offices said about their considerations.

The Beauty of Horror

A day after the photo went viral, Serge Ricco, art director of French magazine L’Obs, decided he would not publish it. Surprisingly, L’Obs did publish it – on their website. “Not my decision,” Ricco said to Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. “I’m thinking of the dignity of the child. Moreover, this photo will not change the course of history in any way.” However, many editors used this same argument to justify publication.

L’Obs had a point. Less than a week before, the inboxes of photo editors worldwide were bombarded with pictures of seven young drowned children on the Libyan coast. Most newspapers did not publish them. Facebook even censored a photo album created by Syrian artist Khaled Barakeh. Why was the response to Aylan’s photo, three days later, so completely different?

The answer has to do with aesthetics. The pictures of the Libyan children are horrific. Their clothes have shifted.

Their bodies are evidently lifeless. There is no doubt about the state these victims are in. Apparently, to show horrific events, we need a touch of beauty. Ironic? According to Aidan White, Director of the Ethical Journalism Network, it’s clear as daylight: “We need aesthetic in pictures as much as we need good language in use of words.”

The photo editor of the Dutch newspaper Trouw put it this way: “Before, we only saw pictures of decayed bodies. These you simply do not show. Aylan’s photo was the first one that made you wonder: is he asleep or is he dead? That is why we thought it was reasonable to print this picture.” A bold decision, for this newspaper is usually very reluctant to show death on its front page. In 2002, it was the only Dutch newspaper that, for ethical reasons, did not print the photo of a dead Pim Fortuyn, the murdered Dutch populist politician. Apparently, there must have been special circumstances indeed to publish Aylan’s photo.

Social Media and the Rush to Publish

Social media played an important role. Their omnipresence online influenced decision-making in traditional editorial offices. The question can even be raised whether journalists published the pictures because they wanted to do so themselves, or because they felt under pressure. For Le Monde the photos of Aylan came in too late for that day’s paper. They were published a day later. Nicolas Jiminez, photo editor-in-chief stated: “During the evening the photos became major news. I received them … during the whole day via social media. Also from friends and family to such a point you can’t ignore it anymore.”

Social media were also a crucial factor at Trouw. Its photo editors had spotted the images at an early stage but had put them aside. When colleagues pointed out that they were circulating continuously on Twitter, the photo editors started to be convinced they could not ignore them. After a discussion with the editor-in-chief, Aylan was put on the front page – accompanied by background information on his journey and referring to the fact the photos went viral. For the editor-in-chief, the text was an essential condition for publication. It served to give the reader some indispensable context.

For the Dutch newspaper Het Algemeen Dagblad, the lack of context and background information was a reason not to publish the day after they appeared online. According to editor-in-chief Christiaan Ruesink: “Paper is different from online. More contemplative, it needs more context.” However, when the images became so widespread, Ruesink felt he needed to apologise to his readers. And the newspaper felt the need to print the pictures after all.

In hindsight, for some editorial offices the fact the images were shared so much online legitimised publishing them. Not just the photos themselves, but the collective urge to share them became news, resulting in some editors diverging from their own ethical views.

Balancing Interests

The fact a photo goes viral does not release journalists from making ethical choices. But to what extent do journalistic imperatives weigh against interests such as privacy of the subject or respect for family members? Amol Rajan, Editor-at-large of London’s The Independent, wrote that different aspects had been thoroughly discussed in his editorial room. However, journalistic interests prevailed: “It was to shock the world into action, to improve refugee policy and to put pressure on a prime minister whose behaviour in this crisis has been embarrassing.”

Shocking the audience could be considered one task of journalism, but there are limits, as could be concluded from a ruling by the Presserat, an Austrian independent organisation set up by print media to investigate journalistic issues. On 27 August 2015, five days before Aylan was found, 71 people were found dead in a lorry. The incident was major news. But there was one problem: there were no images that told the story very well – only pictures of policemen. “Words had to do the talking,” as Fiona Shields, photo-editor at the Guardian, put it. That is, until Die Neue Kronen Zeitung, the largest Austrian newspaper, published an uncensored photo of the dead bodies. The Presserat ruled that the photo conflicted with ethical codes. The bodies were shown in such positions that the newspaper did not respect the human dignity of the deceased.

Publishing comes with responsibilities. This became painfully clear when the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant published an article about terrorism. On its front page the newspaper carried a photo of a man of middle-eastern appearance driving a car being stopped by military policemen at Schiphol Airport. The accompanying text read, “Is Schiphol still safe?” After seeing this, the subject claimed he was being associated unfairly with Muslim terrorism. He complained to the editorial office and started a lawsuit.

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.

Furthermore, journalists should ask themselves why they publish certain photographs. An image going viral does not release any of us from ethical choices.

5 point reporting guide for migration


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