Extended summary by Olga Goriunova

This post introduces our rapid response report following the death of Aylan Kurdi and the images that were circulated. This post was fully updated in line with the introduction in the published report. For further information, please get in touch with Farida Vis [f.vis@sheffield.ac.uk]

Authors: Jim Aulich, Anne Burns, Ray Drainville, Francesco D’Orazio, Simon Faulkner, Sam Gregory, Lucy Mayblin, Lisa Procter and Dylan Yamada-Rice, Lin Prøitz, Simon Rogers, Evelyn Ruppert and Funda Ustek, Holly Ryan, Mike Thelwall, Farida Vis, Claire Wardle.



On the 2nd of September 2015 the body of a three-year-old boy was found washed up on the beach at Bodrum, Turkey. The family of Aylan Kurdi, as he was identified, was trying to cross the Mediterranean to the Greek island of Kos on an inflatable boat that capsized. Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian of Kurdish origin, his brother, mother and other passengers drowned, becoming the latest additions to the already substantial list of casualties in the refugee crisis.

Turkish journalist Nilüfer Demir took a series of photographs of the bodies, of which two became photographic sensations rapidly spreading around the globe. These photographs became iconic images that represented the atrocity of the Syrian refugee crisis in a way that instantly and substantially affected individuals and societies. The unprecedented degree of mobilization of people responding to the crisis was a direct effect of the images, and as their circulation gained momentum, it seemed that a change in political response was possible and forthcoming.

This report is an attempt to understand the tragic photographs of Aylan Kurdi and associated imagery, specifically focusing on how they were discussed within a European context, mainly searching for information and data in English. The photographs became what we call iconic images; being featured by mainstream media, their rapid spread on social media coupled their iconicity with the new virality of the digital age. The power accrued by the images testified to this new regime of visuality, meaning-making through images coupled with the power of social media and their new role in publishing and associated changes in political agency.

The decision to produce this report is based on a belief that change for the better is possible. Understanding how a unified global response that amassed substantial power was arrived at, we hope, can help us become more humane – by realizing the conditions for an atrocity to become visible and widely known and to acquire a political voice that leads to political change. We don’t discuss the photographs of a dead child from the point of view of their effect as a mere ‘example’, but start from an understanding that the event of Aylan Kurdi’s and others’ deaths can never be matched by description or analysis. The way in which we analyse these images is aimed at understanding the new conditions, visual, technical, social and political, in which the events of life and death become manifest, and are in turn recruited to perform, today. Analysing and tackling these conditions, which are partly informed and shaped by the technical infrastructures of social media, their functionality, practices and dynamics, may have an effect on future matters of life and death. And even if our findings provide an unsatisfactory diagnosis for, or of, us as part of humanity, all of us still need to further our understanding as agents in the visual-political and socio-affective regimes of today.


The report asks a number of questions:

  • Why did these particular images accrue such power and manage to draw public attention to the refugee crisis? Many young children died trying to cross the Mediterranean with none of these events being able to attract wide public attention or solicit adequate response.
  • Where did the power of these images come from?
  • Which images were most forceful? What other images were drawn upon?
  • How were they presented and how did they spread?
  • How did technical networks of social media help the images amass their power?
  • What does their creation and spread tell us about national and global societies and political order?
  • What were the responses?
  • Were there correlations between what people said and how they acted given the overall consensus?
  • How, and by what, were the responses shaped? Was there dissensus?
  • Did the images retain their power to enact responses and change?
  • What does this mean for our societies, for our political organisation, for our humaneness?


Overview of the report and the data we worked with

The report has four sections. The first of these, Social Media Responds studies in detail the unfolding of the event on social networks and media both nationally and internationally including the spread of images on social media. The second section, What Did the Image Do? addresses personal, political and artistic responses to the images. The third, The Iconic Image on Social Media offers iconographic explorations of the photographs, looking at the iconography of suffering, war and press photography and at counter-narratives amongst visual cultural traditions. The last section, Showing/Not Showing the Image discusses the exposition of graphic images as ethical and publishing decisions as well as a technical capability, in relation to the practices of visibility and accountability.

Some of the authors worked with data collected through Pulsar (part of ESRC funded Picturing the Social project). Historical Twitter data covering the period 1-14 September 2015 was used based on the search terms enclosed as a reference below.[1] It covered social media, news, forums, and blogs (amounting to 2,843,274 posts). The vast majority of the data gathered, however, was from Twitter. One author also worked with Google data, offering an additional perspective using a specific dataset. Most authors mainly engage with images shared through Twitter and Facebook, often offering a cross-media analysis. As a team, we decided that images would be included in the report only as hyperlinks; we also decided to consistently use the name Aylan, rather than Alan, as that was the name the image was globally circulated and identified with. We are aware however that the child’s actual name is Alan and not Aylan.


Part I – Social Media Responds

Francesco D’Orazio starts the report by covering the shift in vocabulary on social media – from migrant to refugee – that accompanied the spread of the image. The change of terms changes the debate. He then maps the spread of the image onto a timeline and adds further precision by tracking the authors of the first tweets of the image and their locations. Francesco offers an almost hourly tracking: from Turkey, through the countries of the Middle East, to the Emergency Director at Human Rights Watch, Peter Bouckaert, where the story goes viral. The virality itself seems to have degrees of intensity, expanding to become more and more global. Simon Rogers offers a parallel investigation of the same dynamic by looking at Google search data. Google search history confirms the shift in the terms of discussion (from migrant to the refugee) happening in September. Rogers looks at the history of searches by country to track the interest to and the change in international migration and movement. As the tragic news and the image spread, what people wanted to know and how they searched for it changed too, both reflecting and constructing nationally specific forms of knowledge and response.

Farida Vis continues this section with a close analysis of the one hundred most shared images on Twitter, as collected in the Pulsar dataset. The paper explores what kinds of images of Aylan were shared. Specifically if there is a difference in showing Aylan dead or alive, speculating why this is done. Second, it explores national differences, focusing especially on image sharing in Europe and the UK. Reflecting on the typology, geography, the emotional and political charge of images and on a variety of responses exemplified in these exchanges, Farida, in parallel with previous texts, traces the change in classification and naming: the child acquires a name, moving from the category of ‘dead children’ to being identified and remembered. While diffusion of the story remained consistently ‘image-led,’ the responses to the spread of images of Aylan Kurdi and related imagery were not uniform.

Mike Thelwall explores hostile and ‘less than sympathetic’ responses to the story of the boy, his family and the region they came from. Mike’s is an analysis through data-mapping focusing on the popularity of hashtags and keywords by language (Turkish, German, French and English) to identify sympathetic responses as opposed to the discussions of various allegations aimed at undermining the power of the image by shifting blame onto the victims themselves. The authors agree that the image produced a ‘seismic shock’ in terms of change of opinion (from being inimical to ‘migrants’ to empathic to ‘refugees’) and that following the images means understanding this change in media, public opinion and civil society.


Part II – What Did the Image Do?

The second section focuses in particular on reactions and responses to the images, with Anne Burns starting this section by investigating how public opinion was continuously shaped by discussions that arose in response to the image. Anne argues that acting as a ‘symbol’ of a larger human tragedy, this image effectively acted metonymically (i.e. representing the deaths of many by the death of one.) She suggests that it is through the symbolic power of including the death of many into the death of the child while performing a public outcry for action, that the circulation of these images justified itself. Depending on the geography of responses, and correspondingly, on national governments and locally specific political situations, seeing and being moved by the image didn’t always actualize into action or change. The affective and global here becomes specific and particular molded by on-the-ground conditions and different political histories that, following the initial outcries, start playing larger roles.

While many authors condemn the UK’s lack of political response, Lin Prøitz’s exploration of the ad-hoc grass-roots campaign #RWTN (refugeeswelcometonorway) that emerged in Norway seems to offer an exception to the other texts in that it shows people being able to carry out significant political change. Its rapid growth seems to have had an effect on Norwegian local elections which is much more positive than the Cameron government’s response to the refugee crisis. Lucy Mayblin’s text reports that while the response in the UK was immediate and forceful, and the Refugees Welcome UK campaign was gathering momentum rapidly, the overall picture is very far from positive. Her findings suggest that discussions quickly became displaced, focusing on ‘extraterritorial contexts’ or indicating the ‘class politics of invisibility and deservingness’ in operation. While the response of civil society in the UK has been overwhelming, and that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, was arguably forced to respond to the crisis, albeit rather superficially, Mayblin’s disquiet is maintained by the fact that the power of the image and the tragedy of the child and the family did not manage to do enough to change the political situation or legislation. She finishes her paper by drawing our attention to a continuous toughening of asylum legislation and the newly proposed Immigration Bill that suggests deporting parents while putting children into care in the UK. This is a shared finding and concern: nearly all authors draw attention to the fact that though the initial reaction was strikingly forceful, it was often brief, with few long-lasting consequences – such as welcoming more refugees or developing policy adequate to the crisis – to be seen.

Working her way through widely reposted artistic responses to the photograph of dead Aylan on the shore, Holly Ryan completes the second section by pointing towards a therapeutic function of creative response. Whereas an ability to rework traumatic experience creatively increases resilience, it also becomes a foundation for dealing with affective reaction, one ‘beyond words,’ both representing and preparing affect for being remembered and mobilizing affect for politics. Among the paradoxes of affect are non-directionality of response. In line with others, Ryan is left wondering whether the political mobilizations stimulated by the event and by the photographs are not misled, whether they would bring relief or even more suffering.


Part III – The Iconic Image on Social Media

In the third section all three authors recognize the iconic resemblance of Aylan’s photograph to images of sacred death in the Christian visual tradition, with the Pieta motif identified as a key visual context of the image of the boy’s body carried by the policeman. Ray Drainville analyses the photograph, building a striking lineage of aestheticized death in the European visual tradition. As we as viewers are ‘primed,’ trained to perceive aestheticized corpses through the Christian tradition, Aylan’s body is reworked into that of a sleeping angel. In a way, this tragedy becomes visible because its portrayal fits into our visual training. Jim Aulich notices the gesture of care and protection (a child in the hands of an adult) as that of the Pieta. We understand the world with the help of images, Aulich argues. The image aids and shapes cognition. If we weren’t trained to see it in this way, we would not be able to perceive the event. ‘The image constitutes the world’. Recognising this, in photojournalism, war photography and devotional photography, photographs are often not produced as reliable ‘visual depictions,’ but as images impregnated with interpretation, with references and frameworks assisting in assigning them meaning. The iconography of Pieta includes higher authority. Here, both depictions of Aylan resting in heaven and outrage at political leaders (all images circulated on Twitter as responses to the original photographs) are inscribed into the visual tradition of the image itself.

Simon Faulkner’s article picks up on the analysis of imagery generated as responses to Aylan’s photographs. He focuses on the power the image acquired as it moved. Moving between mediums and media, the picture was also dissected and montaged to enable the movement of the image of the body on its own. Here, the body is lifted out of the image, turned into a motif and becomes nomadic. When the body became a motif, an element in a montage, its force was grounded in a ‘metaphoric versatility,’ whereupon, as Faulkner attests, guilt is produced by ‘visual association.’ Montage is used here to demonstrate or incur culpability and the main element of the original photograph possesses ‘transposable rhetorical power.’


Part IV – Showing/Not Showing the Image

In the last section, Procter and Yamada-Rice engage with one specific element through which the affective engagement with the photograph took place: the boy’s shoes. These shoes are both depersonalised and simplified so that they could belong to any child. This agenthood of the shoes rests in the power of such an object as a symbol of childhood. Through the shoes, the innocence of childhood unfolds; it also created a figure of the carer who has been putting the shoes on, as well as other adults ultimately responsible for his death by not exercising care. Shoes indicate vulnerability and exemplify care both exercised and withdrawn (in the image of the seemingly sleeping boy still having his shoes on). Shoes here witness and demonstrate the atrocity and function as an agent to enact the emotional response.

Sam Gregory’s piece focuses on Facebook’s auto-play function and platform control. Software and interface elements here come to play important roles in how the image spread and what force it acquired, as they facilitate and address peoples’ decisions. Such technical agency poses new sets of social, political and ethical questions.

Building on this, Claire Wardle’s fascinating account of close engagement between the technological development of platforms and users’ practices in relation to the publishing of graphic images is full of material for thought. Wardle, who for a while worked as a Senior Social Media Officer at UNHCR, (the UN Agency for Refugees) reports on the history of circulation of graphic images on social media, especially in relation to her position as an advocate for refugees who for many years tried to engage people through various means, photography not the least of them. Wardle suggests that reposting Aylan’s image across wide audiences became an individual act of publishing, a decision on what should be seen. Aylan’s image is not graphic, and perhaps, as other contributions indicate, that is the root of its ‘success’. Twitter Moments, a new curated content feature on Twitter, which launched in September 2015 were quick to place warnings on graphic images (for instance of the Ankara bombings), but they would not have picked the image of Aylan. Such technical decisions (by a content review team) and by algorithms may now possibly become full actors in deciding what is to be seen and what not, together with individual users who become publishers. The debate about graphic images is not over, but it proposes questions of how to walk a fine-line between what people want to see, deciding to share (a publishing decision) and acting alongside newspapers in informing others whilst striving to become more humane.

In the last paper in this report, Evelyn Ruppert and Funda Ustek talk about technologies and practices of counting and specifically of counting refugees. Refugees are the hardest population to capture: hard to track, to count. Highly dynamic and fluid, the category escapes usual systems of assigning numbers. The politics of numbering relates here to humanitarian statistics and to the question of who counts as population. The habitual visualisation of refugees as swarms, movements and lines is, in the case of Aylan, interrupted by one singular image. Counting creates knowledge about lives and livelihoods, and it is in the counting of Aylan’s dead body that we learn more about the lives of others.



  1. Search terms: #kiyiyavuraninsanlik · kiyiya vuran insanlik · #humanitywashedashore · humanity washed ashore · #refugeeswelcome · #refugeecrisis · #refugeescrisis · #aylankurdi · #alankurdi · #aylan · aylan · alan · kurdi · #nomoredrownings · no more drownings · #dyingtogethere · dying to get here · #syria boy · syria boy · #syrian boy · syrian boy · #syria child · syria child · #syrian child · syrian child · #syrianchild · #syrianboy · bodrum beach · drowned boy · drowned child · drowned toddler · refugees welcome · refugee crisis · refugees crisis

Statement on Ethics – As this report was interested in uncovering broad trends and not in highlighting individual users, for Twitter we only identify Twitter users by name and handle where we felt it was clear that they are public figures tweeting in a public capacity. Names of private users have been blurred in visualisations. Google data was available only to one author, who worked with it in aggregate.