The photograph showing the bodies of Salvadoran migrants Oscar Martinez and his two-year-old daughter on the Rio Bravo, on the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as sharing formal similarities with the sadly famous image of little Aylan Kurdi drowned when he was trying to reach the Turkish coast, is the sinister realization of a reality: the problem is not that the continuous exposure to this type of images immunizes us against the suffering of others, but that the inertia in our attitudes and behaviors makes us resistant to any change that implies abandoning the comfort of our small certainties and pocket ideologies. Is anyone discussing the catastrophic effects of climate change? Is anyone doing anything to promote urgent attitudinal changes at the global level?

Like the images of Abu Ghraib in which prisoners were photographed with hoods that concealed their faces, the images of these migrants drowned at the very gates of “paradise” also share that peculiarity. We only know the identity of the deceased from a brief press account, but we are not allowed to verify it or to see for ourselves what face the horror of sacrificing life in order to achieve the dream of a better life has. The bodies are shown face down, with their faces submerged in water or buried in sand. If in Abu Ghraib the violence seemed theatrical, as if it were part of a ritual, in those of migrants the ritual will be consummated in the form of sacrifice.

In both photographs, the presence of a child is the punctum that strikes us in such a way that some media considered these images too shocking to publish on their covers – in the case of Aylam, some media opted for a kinder option: instead of using the photograph of the drowned child on a lonely shore, they opted for a more humanitarian version in which a Turkish policeman was seen carrying the child in his arms. It is possible to continue arguing against the spectator’s response to this type of images in the same way as Peggy Phelan does in her essay “Atrocity and Action” and to conclude in the capacity that these images have to provoke action, since they are capable of resisting any attempt of narrative or psychological accommodation, although the truth is that little has changed the situation as a consequence of the publication of these images. The world has become complex: liberal thinking and globalization have domesticated society, the economy and related sectors of culture. The situation is not so different from that described by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in his article “Art under fire” about art in Saddam’s Iraq; critical thinking is installed in the peripheries of the official model with little, if any, capacity to revert this type of situation.

aylam Kurdi
Photograph: Cavit AKGÜN