Sharing photos of dead children won’t change the world

And it shouldn’t make anyone feel good about themselves


I first saw three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, in the same way you did, his little frame washed up on a beach like driftwood, his face buried in the sand. And maybe – like me – you first saw this picture shared on Facebook, or Twitter.

On my newsfeed Aylan was sandwiched between an article exploring the history of Diddy and 50 Cent’s beef over vodka brands and some interior shots of a private jet some dick from my old school uploaded. Does anyone honestly believe that’s a fitting resting place for a human being?

Today there were more fragments of tragedy and barbarism – another post stuffed with pictures of dead children – shared on my feed, without warning, without context. Every share of it was accompanied by high-minded words – it’s time to act now, enough is enough – that kind of thing.

This has been shared over 40,000 times

This has been shared over 40,000 times

The sense of something being done created by the partnership of these horrific pictures and a worthy Facebook status is entirely false. Sharing this stuff, clicking “join” on a march you probably won’t go to: it’s about giving the impression of being important and profound without actually doing the necessary intellectual heavy lifting to be those things. It’s all about feeling, not thought.

It’s about guilt. It’s about an electric and severe prod to the synapses, aimed at dredging up your most disposable emotions, packing them up and sending them off to whichever marginal hellhole is most wretched this week.

The problem with using a feeling like guilt to get people to care about the plight of Syrian refugees is obvious. Guilt is simply a feeling before you have other feelings. You’ll feel something if you stub your toe, or watch Eastenders or send a filthy Snapchat. Feelings aren’t permanent or coherent or serious or rational. They’re not a solution to anything.

Personally, all I feel when I see these pictures is anger – not at the situation itself (that’s more of an exhausting sadness vibe) – but at the people dishing out these images. Facebook – a thicket of bullshit on the best of days – is no place to share pictures of dead children. It reduces real grief and tragedy to the level of trivia, to be consumed, digested and jumbled up with pictures of pugs or Taylor Swift memes.

Syrians have been dying for years, cruelly and brutally. They’ve died in shootings and bombings. They’ve died in chemical weapon attacks. They’ve died fleeing their war ravaged country, their bodies crushed and contorted, stacked in trunks, frozen in cargo holds.

You don’t deserve to feel better about the world or your place in it if you think it’s fair to reduce Aylan to titillating propaganda and Facebook likes. Over and over again I’ve heard that picture of him described as shocking. It’s only shocking if you’ve had your head in the sand for the last three years, if by acting as a voyeur is the only way you can understand reality.