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In his 2010 TED talk, Photos That Changed the World, co-founder of Getty, Jonathan Klein, maintains that a picture can make the world a better place. With clear-eyed compassion, he proves his point, presenting a series of images many of us know well, images from which we can neither look away nor back.

In her book, The Rise, Sarah Lewis refers to this power, this “aesthetic force” as the thing that will force us into action, perhaps even to justice:

. . . it leaves us changed — stunned, dazzled, knocked out. It can quicken the pulse, make us gape, even gasp with astonishment. Its importance is its animating trait — not what it is, but what it does to those who behold it in all its forms. Its seeming lightness can make us forget that it has weight, force enough to bring about a self-correction, the acknowledgment of failure at the heart of justice — the moment when we reconcile our past with our intended future selves. Few experiences get us to this place more powerfully . . . than the emotive power of aesthetic force.

The images are iconic –  Princess Diana holding a baby infected with HIV/AIDS; a little girl, naked and terrified, burned by Napalm in Vietnam; a young woman, arms outstretched and wailing over the body of a slain student at Kent State University. Faced with such pictures, what must we do?  We cannot look away. We cannot retreat to the place we knew before seeing that image.

Klein also recognizes that there are images sometimes deemed too upsetting for us to see them, images from the front-line, from natural disasters; images that expose with harrowing candor, man’s inhumanity to man. The image on the front page of The Irish Examiner, The Independent and other newspapers today is that of a tiny boy identified as three-year-old Aylan Kurdi. In his little red T-shirt and shorts, he is lying face-down on the water’s edge at a beach in Turkey. Drowned. Washed up with his mother and brother.

Like human litter. 

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Desperate to escape the war in their homeland, Syrian refugees are fleeing by the tens of thousands. The little boy is one of 12 refugees who drowned in one of two boats bound for the Greek island of Kos. He is one of 2,500 people, according to UNHR who have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean in 2015. Is that enough dead people to bring us to do what is right and just and humane? is the sight of a dead toddler on the beach enough? What is the point of documenting the death toll l if we do nothing about it?

Statistics are human beings with the tears wiped off,

~ Paul Brodeur

From afar, we can look at the pictures and read the stories of entire families drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. We can listen – or tune out – as those in power debate and discuss where people belong or if they belong anywhere. They are unrelenting, quibbling over definitions of words like ‘refugee’ or ‘migrant,’ or where to draw the line that somehow separates “genuine” from its opposite in matters of ‘asylum.’ Amid this noise, they might distance themselves, but will they look away, unchanged, from the little boy in the bright red T-shirt, dead in the sand on a Turkish beach?

This earth belonged to him as it belongs to us. It is the only home we will ever know, and its possibilities diminish when our hearts harden about our place in it, about the people with whom we share it, and about the mark we leave upon it.  We know better, we know, as poet Damian Gorman says,  “Life is not always possible where you start out . . . ”  It is time to do better.


by Damian Gorman

If life, decent life, is not possible where you are, you have the right to move anywhere where you might find it – anywhere in the world – including the house attached to my house, in my part of the world.
And it’s not even a right. It’s in you, this particular urge. Like the stretch that’s inside bones; like the workings of the heart and lungs.
And I know that life should be possible where you start out. Yes it should be, and that’s a big issue that we should speak, and do other things about. But life is not always possible where you start out. And, rather than welcome people fleeing from unbearable want, we erect walls and ask people to stand in the gated gaps of them to say – on our behalf – ‘You have no business here.’
And what is the result?
The result is a dreadful soup of humanity in an abandoned truck on the Austro-Hungarian border; an awful stew which might contain 20 people or 50 people. But actually 71 people.
The result is bodies littering the waters of the Mediterranean like the discarded wrappings of things.
And still the walls go up. And still we employ people to say for us, ‘You have no business here, in this place, among us.’
Well my point – my only point – is this: that there is no clear-cut, no necessarily-big distance between saying to desperate people ‘You have no business here, among us’ and ‘You have no business here, in this world.’
Agus ta failte romhaibh,
And you are welcome.