The Politics of (the Image of) the Dead Child

Last week, one image dominated most media outlets: that of three-year-old Syrian Aylan Kurdi.  The image first appeared on my Twitter timeline on Wednesday night.  On Thursday morning, I went to work (I work in a supermarket) to see that the image had been printed on the majority of that day’s newspapers including The Guardian and The Daily Mail.  It was Friday before I saw any mention of the young boy’s name on Twitter.  Subsequent images have appeared reappropriating the original photograph, including a cartoon and a sand sculpture (neither of which I am prepared to upload or link to here).

This image has provoked awareness of the gravity of the situation in Syria and what now seems to be being referred to as the ‘global migration crisis’, as well as outrage in the form of demands for political accountability and for the provision of aid and assistance for those caught up in the crisis.  This is of course a welcome change given the prominence of narrow-minded and xenophobic attitudes towards migrants and migration often championed in some media outlets (Daily Mail, I’m looking at you).  However, I am struggling with the politics and ethics of printing and/or sharing this image.  I will try to articulate my reasons here, hopefully with some degree of success.  I appreciate that this is an emotive topic and that not everyone will agree with my position.  But my contention is that the image of the dead child is not only unethical, but also politically-charged and highly manipulative.

First and foremost, my objections to the sharing of this image concern the ethical implications of this gesture.  A child has died.  And to share the image of his dead body disrespects this unnecessary loss of life.  At stake here is the question of consent.  Aylan has not consented to his death being photographed and then shared.  This is not an artistic project such as A Photographer’s Life in which, as Emma Wilson explains, ‘Mortality is encompassed in a record of love and art’ and in which ‘lens-based art’ becomes ‘a means of maintaining a sensory, amorous relation to the dead’ (3).  This is not an historical death portrait, a means of making sense of the loss of the child in an age of high rates of infant mortality.  This image was taken by a photographer with no connection to the subject of the photograph and I find it difficult to comprehend how one could bring oneself to photograph such an event.

Beyond its ethical implications, the sharing of this image, whether through its printing on the front page of a national newspaper or through social media, is a manipulative act.  The image of the dead child is deployed to stir up certain emotions and reactions that the image of a dead adult would not.  These reactions concern characteristics we attach to the child, such as innocence, a lack of agency and the expectation that the child will progress from childhood to adulthood and live into old age.  We see a dead child and we become outraged at the injustice: he is just an innocent child, he did not choose this, he should not have perished.  I am of course not suggesting that Aylan is not innocent, that he chose this for himself, that he should have died.  But what irks me is that the compassion stirred up in relation to the figure of the child might not necessarily be matched if this image had been of a man or a woman.  We should feel compassion for all of the individuals caught up in this, regardless of their age.

The reason behind these emotions and reactions stirred up by the image of the dead child – and the reason why I’m writing about this on my blog – is tied to the significance of the child as a figure of heterofuturitive politics.  As Lee Edelman outlines, the innocence of the child ‘solicits our defense’, with the image of this figure deployed as a means to shape ‘the logic within which the political itself must be thought’ (2).  Edelman posits the relationship between the child and politics as follows:

politics […] remains, at its core, conservative insofar as it works to affirm a structure, to authenticate social order, which it then intends to transmit to the future in the form of its inner Child.  That Child remains the perpetual horizon of every acknowledged politics, the fantasmatic beneficiary of every political intervention (2-3).

While the psychoanalytic foundations of his framework prove problematic from certain angles, his desire to find a means of ‘not “fighting for the children”’ and his argument that ‘all politics confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism’ (3) propose a convincing critique of the heterofuturity of contemporary politics and the extent to which the Child is deployed in their service.

In my research, I analyse the representation of childhood (and) death in post-Franco Spanish cinema, hence my interest in the ethics, aesthetics and politics of the image of Aylan which dominated headlines and social media outlets last week.  The distinction is, of course, that the images with which I work are fictional, created as part of a narrative that nonetheless addresses the politics of (the image of) the dead child.  That said, both these and the image of Aylan evoke a constellation of key issues that require attention in our contemporary context, specifically concerning our ethical obligations regarding the images we view and share on the internet.


EDELMAN, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

WILSON, Emma. Love, Mortality and the Moving Image. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.


2 thoughts on “The Politics of (the Image of) the Dead Child”

  1. Great blog Fee! Got my cogs spinning away. Why IS western societies FIRST response (when their eyes are met with terrible scenes/ images) to reach for their cameras!? Well you’re old friend capitalism has provided the tools! …… And some people will possibly see an opportunity for financial gain if the images can be sold to a newspaper etc.etc. However I’m sure I remember we studied a short story (or maybe a poem) in higher English about the scene of an accident where there is ambulances etc, and passers by are crowding around trying to see this horrible scene. Just some of the thoughts your post inspired.

  2. Interesting points re. Western obsession with instant photography (and sharing of photography!). But perhaps there were enough people offering assistance (visible in other pictures), and images such as Aylan are necessary and important documentation of horrendous events we would otherwise not put a human face to. (Similarly, the picture of a vulture watching a starving African child and waiting for said child to die, or the image of children after Vietnam napalm attack). These images are horrendous, and unsettle our comfortable western lives, perhaps spurring us into some meaningful action, something that multiple reports of the horrors faced by Syrians had not yet achieved (myself included). There is an argument against images such as these, but there is also the argument that they are not falsification of any sort, but documentation of real events that need to be addressed. If the tapping of the human instinct to protect young is a way to invoke useful help for a cause (20,000 refugees being granted asylum), should that really be a negative thing? Does sharing the image of Aylan show a lack of respect, or does it allow his dreadful meaningless passing to gain some sort of meaning in the saving of countless lives? Sorry…. Rambling. Such a complicated issue!

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