Photographic Death on the Network: the Immortality of Aylan Kurdi

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes grasps at the essence of photography and attempts to synthesize and explain the medium. He approaches photography by analyzing various images and classifying them, while expressing how he personally interacts with these images. He quantifies a sort of grammar of photographic images, which one may individually assess in their reading of photographs. It is a distinctly phenomenological analysis, dealing in the personal relationship with, and the affect tied up in viewing, photographs. As he emphasizes, “the reading of public photographs is always, at bottom, a private reading” (97). It is an individual encounter and, to Barthes, the most powerful encounter is with the image “[that is] pensive, when it thinks” (38). Barthes, unlike Sontag, does not approach photography sociologically or historically, with political or ethical implications in mind (at least not expressly). He avoids photographs of agony and other similar “reportage,” with their lack of the “photographic look” (111). Even so, in my research I have been contemplating to what extent his thinking (his grammar on photography)—especially with respect to the “punctum”— can be applied to the death image of Aylan Kurdi.

Aylan was a two year old Syrian child attempting to cross from Turkey to Greece with his parents and older brother, along with numerous other refugees. Their rubber boat capsized. Of the four in the Kurdi family, only Aylan’s father survived. The photograph triggered a massive outcry on social media and in the news, which widely circulated the image taken by a Turkish photojournalist. It is of Aylan, with his red shirt, blue shorts, and tiny tennis shoes, lying on the beach. The surf is lapping at his head, which rests face down in the sand. The image is quiet, simple, restful—he doesn’t appear dead, but as many have expressed, seems to be merely asleep. To approach this image as Barthes might, we must first assess the photograph itself, without confronting the object it depicts (we will return later to the “object”). At work in all photographs, claims Barthes, are the “studium,” and the “punctum” (which has proven more elusive to me in a conceptual sense). The studium is a sought out rhetorical understanding, and what a photograph “speaks” (43). It is culturally coded, a something that is of interest. The punctum is an element that “pricks,” and stands out, which wounds (not emotionally, but a detail that catches one’s attention). “It is what [one] add[s] to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there” (55).

The stadium is innate in all images—it is clear; all images speak, most are of some interest. The punctum is more slippery, although I believe that the photograph of Aylan is possibly without one. Barthes claims that news photographs are often “unary photographs,” or lacking of the punctum (40). There is “a certain shock—the literal can traumatize—but no disturbance; the photograph can ‘shout,’ not wound” (41). The photograph of Aylan shouts as a news photograph (I think one can define it as such), but does it “wound”—is there a detail that interrupts our reading of its singular presentation: that of death? We are no doubt moralistically affected by the image, in that it is a dead child and, additionally, when we consider the socio-political context—but that is not the question. Would Barthes only look through it; do you? Do I? One must ask himself, through Barthes, do you “add something to the photograph” or is there only what is easily expressed? I’ve stared at this photo (and the pain of that image, at least for me, becomes more acute with duration), and am not pricked with the type of “prick” that Barthes entails. I see a small, dead child. It does do something, it is wounding in some other way.

What one can draw from this reading of the Aylan photo, is the phenomenological quality of the encounter—a reminder, in a vaguely related way, of the privacy (and subjectivity) of our reading of photographs. The photograph of Aylan certainly illustrates this variegated relationship, while also evidencing the conceptual functions of photography.

Aylan’s death exemplifies the notion of iconographic photography, a phenomenon that is not unfamiliar. Select images become the synecdochical substitutes for larger issues (which Scott discussed in our last meeting, with regard to police murder); or totems (I’m borrowing Sontag’s word) around which communities surround. Aylan, in the days following his death, seems to have become such an icon. (Or, at least, was in the incipient stages of such realization.) In a period of massive unrest, with thousands upon thousands of refugees fleeing war and terror, there almost seems to have been a thirst for symbolism, for something to foster an aligned spirit of action. There was a great deal of talk on social media platforms, even a correlative rise in pro-refugee rhetoric (with the hashtag #RefugeesWelcome) with the Aylan image. A sense that the image would alter perceptions and sway public opinion populated the network, that it was journalistically impactful:

Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 9.06.10 AMFig. 1 (Tweet)

Others were outraged at its dissemination and its “use” (see fig. 2), along with the especial focus given to this instance of Syrian death (see fig. 3). There continue to be, and certainly were, more deaths than Alyan’s. Even of his own family—his mother and brother, who were dead on the same beach, did not have images of them virally shared. But it was nonetheless Aylan’s photograph which was “chosen.”

Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 10.34.27 AMFig. 2 (Facebook post)

Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 10.35.36 AM

Fig. 3 (Facebook post)

Inflammatory comments from opposing parties, reflecting various interests around the Syrian conflict, were also traceable (see fig. 4).

Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 9.08.02 AM

Fig. 4 (Tweet)

The image is highly, and controversially, politicized—with debate, and emotions, peaking on the network. The intensity of this was, for a time, considerable.

Yet, interest did wane, along with the news stories, even as memes were produced. With the immediacy and attention deficit of media and the news cycle, there is an unsurprisingly quick receding of such images from the mainstream view. The increasing ordinariness of Syrian (and other) death, which continues to develop, is coupled—or results—in a sense that nothing can be done. It is redolent of the inevitability of death and dying to which Sontag refers, and which may give rise to feelings of apathy.

So what do such photographs do? They are not actions, nor do they necessarily instigate action. They do, however, illicit feelings about action (or inaction), and thinking. Is our repeated, relentless exposure to such imagery neutralizing of moralistic affect (even if that affect does not lead to action)? Suffering is made banal when perceived on a broad, globalized scale—to such a degree that it even becomes a part of our advertising (see fig. 5).

Fig. 5 (Tweet)

Although fig. 5 is an effort in aid of refugees, it is still telling of how imagery of suffering can be adopted and even commercialized for various purposes—the quotation of Aylan is apparent. (I might add that in some of my research, a Royal Caribbean advertisement of a father and son under water was on the periphery of the webpage on which I read an article about drowned refugees.)

Aylan has resurfaced recently, especially in the wake of the recent attacks in Paris. He endures as an image on the network, a fledgling icon, who fostered thinking and conversation on a dire situation, if only briefly. This, arguably, is the “ethical value of an assault by images” (Sontag 116). There is, however, only so much a photograph can do.

It is centrally, as Sontag states, “an invitation to think.” And on the modern, highly connected network we possess, with democratized access to images and social media platforms (thanks to the cellphone), this potential is magnified. Ultimately, the confrontational nature, as well as the memorializing quality, of the photograph is central to its function today. To sway those in positions of power with the horror of the effects of their policies, of their inadequate political action. It is on the modern network that photographs—in their essential nature—become especially effective, thanks to the newly globalized and immediate capacity of networked media. Although spectatorship is a luxury,  more people than ever are now connected and capable of viewing shared media. It is also an accumulative body, a place one can return to and look at not only images, but also discourse on those images. Thus, the network has become an institution of memory within which we can, at least, reflect upon images of suffering.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. New York : Hill and Wang, 1981. PDF.

Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador, 2003.



The (Ir)Relevance of the Photographic Image

It is hard to think about death, let alone see it in a photograph or watch it play out on a screen. What is harder still is to imagine that we can be “anesthetized” to the supposed power of that death. Like any obscenity (although, according to Bazin, the obscenity of real death is not moral, but “metaphysical”: the unnatural, impossible repetition of real death itself that cinema allows), it seems one can grow accustomed to it. I never used to swear, but was rather known as He Who Does Not Swear. Swearing makes swearing familiar to the stomach. Viewing death, arguably, has a related affect. The constancy of imaged death, the loop of videos to which we are exposed on YouTube and in the media. We see in this an expansion, or extension, of the repetition Bazin refers to with respect to the cinematic magnification of “the quality of the original moment” –the repetition of “real death” and its dissemination far beyond the theater, or even a cable networked program. With the advent of the today’s Internet and the various sites which populate it, a new, seemingly infinite platform for the playing out of real death is available. However, it is not merely the viewing of such content that is made possible, but the globalized use of that content, which was before unattainable, or only marginally effective.

That is perhaps one of the more unnerving aspects of Jennifer Malkowski’s essay, “Streaming death: the politics of dying on Youtube”: the possibility of using a rhetoric of death and dying, or at least the consideration that such a rhetoric can potentially do work. What I find interesting about her assessment (and which is what makes this inquiry pertinent to my research) is the exclusion of Photography from it: “A corpse photograph… can feel like an image made too late— a still representation of a still object that can only gesture toward the absent last moments of the person who once inhabited it.” Photographs certainly have functioned successfully in eliciting affect, in sparking response, but Malkowski claims “the most legendary entries in the annals of politically useful death images are not of corpses” but of the “event.” This hints to an inevitable dominance of filmic imagery, in that the very examples of the photographic medium with especial efficacy, are those that exhibit (or are suggestive of) a cinematic quality: of movement, suspending what is to come.

Thinking about Malkowski’s thinking, we are drawn once again to the usefulness, or potency, of aesthetics. I think there is a tendency to deny or ignore the notion of presentation when considering “real” texts—we look strictly at the event (or object) presented, which obfuscates our perception of the medium (Consider Barthes’s “translucent envelope,” which is the Photograph). As a rhetorician, Malkowski, naturally, is so inclined to dissect the nature of the image as a Rhetoric, and to explore the essential roots of its effects. This brings us, once again, to cinema, but more specifically, Hollywood. We’ve passingly spoken of idiom in class, and the implementation of various “idioms” in creative projects. It is very interesting to consider the action-film idiom and documentary death’s parallel to it. Malkowski shows us that it is an aesthetic quality—a mirroring of particular tropes of a form of representation—which gives certain instances of documentary death (the Iranian woman Agha-Soltan) their impacting power, for “Hollywood has been [the] primary guide to what death looks like…” Real death thus becomes spectacle. This contrasts interestingly, in terms of photography, with Sontag’s notion that realism is the root of image’s perceived authenticity. There is a suggestion, then, that pure authenticity is not necessarily the determinant of imagery’s effectiveness.

It is productive to look at the affect tied up in videography. Like photographs, videos invade our homes, are on our personal devices. In an unsettling manifestation of this phenomenon, our activities are saturated with ubiquitous death, dying, and violence by way of such media. One is “bombarded” by Hollywood death, but also real death. There is a sense that it is inescapable. This is related to Capitalism, particularly consumption— the consumption of filmed death: “YouTube’s attention economy is ‘based on the slogan: pithy, precise, rousing calls to action, or consumption, or action as consumption.’” Our consumption of things, like media, is a tenant of western Capitalism. Consider big Networks, like CNN, with their Wolf Blitzer warnings: “I want to warn our viewers out there that what they’re about to see is very disturbing. We’re going to let it roll in its entirety…” These media providers profit from such imagery and the viewers it attracts. And this is emblematic of the strange appeal of death, of our curiosity in relation to it.

While Malkowski (in concert with such thinkers as Berger and Sontag) wants these images to communicate, “to effect some change in ourselves and the world,” others are horrified by this reliance on the camera— of the “cheap” or “weird” or problematic circulation of such videos. On social media, especially Twitter, there is a division regarding the value of such sharing. Some decry it as voyeuristic, disgraceful, as a moralistically gross or vulgar kind of consumption. And there is certainly concern regarding action (or inaction), especially in this day of the “Twitter Activist.” This depends on a narrow assessment of doing, though—there are different forms of action in response to such phenomena. I think it is counter-productive to declare any one form of action more “genuine” or “valid.” Ideally, though, people do more than consume. We live in a new age of visibility, of having illuminated what might always have been but that remained unseen, thanks to a multiplicity of lenses (both photographic and filmic). We are finding realties and truths that were beyond the reaches of our knowledge.

At the root of moving and still images, as I have earlier expressed, is death and “the presence and permanent possibility of death” (Bazin 29). Returning to this briefly will clarify (to some extent) the usefulness of the photograph, which Malkowski means to dethrone. The photograph does not show the passage between states that Bazin’s filmic imagery allows. Rather, it suspend these moments: captures them, focuses them, concentrates the viewer’s gaze. (Though this is not to say they show us “everything”). As Barthes contemplates, “Do I add to the images in movies? I don’t think so; I don’t have time…” (55). It is this which makes photography so interesting to me, and what makes it a more potent representation to Sontag, despite the dominance of moving imaging: “Nonstop imagery (television, streaming video, movies) is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite “ (22). The still, individualized frame which is a disadvantage in Malkowski’s assessment of photography is to Sontag, in contrast, the root of photography’s power. Highly selected, they are thus made more memorable, and fostering of contemplation. This leads, then, to the photograph’s most interesting, and virulent, tendency: translation into icon.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. New York : Hill and Wang, 1981. PDF.

Bazin, André. “Death Every Afternoon.” Rites of Realism: Essays on

Corporeal Cinema. Ed. Ivone Margulies. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003. 27-31. PDF.

Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador, 2003.



A Brief History of Photographic Suffering and the Promise of Affect

Photography has various purposes, certainly, and our understanding of said purposes has changed over the years, along with the breadth of its application. The camera was once a niche toy of the elite, not unlike the first automobiles (On Photography 7). Cumbersome, with long development times, the “utilitarian” aspect of the camera, which now seems inherent, remained far away. With industrialization, however, the camera came into its own as a tool, one with broad social utility. Its eventual portability allowed for new and expanding documentary opportunities, with various implications. For the purposes of this project, we will be concentrating on photography of agony, especially (within this post) war photography.

Briefly, let us consider some of the history of imaged suffering. Previous representation of the like, according to Sontag, acted as mere “provocation: can you look at this?” It was essentially lacking the “moral charge” that characterizes Photographic presentation of similar subjects today. The viewer could derive some level of satisfaction from the image that was constructed, which was part of their design (Regarding 41). This was in the act of looking, in that one could look. With Photographs, the viewer is now more responsive in real space than one was, or is, with similar depictions in more subjective forms of representation. (Composition or staging is arguably detrimental to the “authenticity” of the Photograph, whose moral impact seems to depend upon its air of realism.) Photographs not only index terrors, but they hail us with them. They goad us and foster the feeling “that something must be done,” and illicit the sensation that one should give more care (79). Photography does not necessarily create morality, however, but can “stimulate the moral impulse” (On Photography 16). I agree with Sontag on this point. The moral impulse is not derived from images or media, but is constructed through socialization and through the formation of identity within culture. This propensity to “spark” is important to consider when looking at the potentialities of photography and what the depiction of suffering can do.

In the early application of the camera in theaters of war, photographs were not used to trigger anti-war sentiment or to depict the horrors of battle. On the contrary, photographers were initially deployed to document banal and positive imagery, with the objective being to boost domestic morale (Regarding 48). Photography was thus used within the realm of war to foster feelings other than outrage. The sheer inconvenience of photographing in this period (specifically, the Crimean War of the 1850s), contributed to the impossibility, and neglect, of capturing the “true face” of war. This is an interesting way by which the dignified, idyllic vision of the valiant soldier could be maintained. Furthermore, the photographer “posed” his subjects, whether in portraiture of the living or the bodies of the dead. Such an anachronistic detail reminds one of an important truth about all Photography: “to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude” (46). The photographer, does “interpret” in this way. Inevitably, though, as people improved upon this technology, so too changed our vision of war via the photographic eye.

In modernity, especially for those of us fortunate enough (in some respects) to live in the West, war is distant. It is media that brings the war home—we have a “camera mediated knowledge of war” (24). Much of the suffering we view in pictures and on screens is not only geographically distant, but socially and economically “another world” away. They are the deaths in someone else’s war, the mutilation of the body of “the other” and the destruction of his/her space. Thus the camera(man) is both a tourist, as Sontag calls it, and also colonizing—a means of exhibition.

During the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, which Sontag describes as the beginning of modern war photography (as a professionally journalistic enterprise), the images taken of death and destruction were disseminated all over the world in print media. A greater extent of the horror was now on camera, in a more active and incisive manner than achieved previously. There was outrage over the deaths— especially by aerial bombing—of Spaniards in their towns and villages. But, as Sontag notes, the nearly identical bombing of civilians in colonial possession after World War I (which was not widely seen) did not spark widespread outrage. It was when western Europeans were being killed in the 1930s by such tactics (which was visible), that there was considerable public outcry (31). As influenced by ideology, and by context, “what matters is precisely who is killed and by whom,” in determining what is photographed.

Yet, images of “exotic” death—which is of particular, and problematic, interest to the Western viewer— are quite prominent in their socio-political effects, especially in relation to the Vietnam War. The camera had developed even further, from a means to document horrors of war, into a component in the critique of war. Photographs (and film) had become a tool of anti-war efforts during the Vietnam era, or at least influential in affecting anti-war sentiment (65). In response to this, governments in subsequent conflicts have resorted to the barring of journalists, and various other means of censorship. Such governmental paranoia is demonstrative of the power of news imagery. I will next explore thinking on the powers of film in contrast to photography, a division which emerges, primarily, with the rise of television. This leads to questions regarding the efficacy of both, and whether or not the photograph is made obsolete by the rise of video.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. 1978; New York: Farrar, Straus and

Giroux, 1973. Text.

—. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador, 2003. Text.


Spectral Visions

Photography is a relatively recent media form that has significantly influenced the world and our perception of reality. Photographs are everywhere, and it is largely through photographic snapshots that we see the world. As Susan Sontag writes in “In Plato’s Cave,” “Today everything exists to end in a photograph” (24). We do, it would seem, reside in “The Image World.” Since the early nineteenth-century, the medium has risen, overtaking the previously dominant mode of representation: painting. An “upstart,” it is similar to painting in a pictorial sense, although the latter is a subjective, less limited representation. As Roland Barthes explains, the camera is constrained by its own depiction of reality (by the “superimposition” of reality and the past), whereas painting “can feign reality without having seen it” (Barthes 76). Central to the photographic image, and human regard for it, is an aurora of credibility, which other mimetic forms are lacking. Succinctly, through Bazin, Photography incontrovertibly satisfies our “obsession with realism” (Bazin 5).

Photographs are evidential, a “more innocent, … more accurate, relation to visible reality” (6). They have a quality of utter realness, which painting (as imitation [Barthes], or “interpretation” [Sontag]) cannot capture. The camera comes to show (even redefine) realities, and thus, people “feel that they are images, and are [potentially] made real by photographs” (Sontag 161). We are always taking photographs, having our photograph taken, wanting to be photographed and to photograph. The lens becomes the eye with which we see the world and also the realities of others.

This photographic essence (of omniscience and perceptive reconfiguration) is a shaping force upon human perception, which is no more apparent than in our relationship with imaged death and dying. Hollywood filmic imagery has become a highly effective idiom in videography, which Jennifer Malikowski posits and that I will discuss in a later post. Moreover, as Sontag notes in Regarding the Pain of Others, the manner in which people relate the surrealism of their experiences with destruction has changed in this image-saturated age: “After four decades of big-budget Hollywood disaster films, ‘It felt like a movie’ seems to have displaced the way survivors of a catastrophe used to express the short-term unassimilability of what they had gone through: ‘It felt like a dream’” (22). The irreducible, the ethereal, the hallucination is given a tangible analogue in the photograph. With photography, there is a return to the sacralized status of images from primitive time, where “less sharp is the distinction between images and real things” (On Photography 155). This distance is manifestly shorter once again. Barthes similarly echoes this notion of archaic, pagan (even magical) ritual: “Photography is a kind of primitive theater… a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead” (32). Photographs bury their traces of reality, the objects that were, that are made living and dead by way of a chemical or electronic or digital intermediation, resulting in an image.

This occult mediation does not captivate the soul, as unfamiliar, “primitive” societies and certain religious groups believe. But Photography undeniably enraptures us. Photography not only reminds us of (with certainty) “what has been,” but purports—even confronts us with— inevitabilities: above all, death. Photography is haunted. And today especially, the magic, the hallucination, is shared.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. New York : Hill and Wang, 1981. PDF.

Bazin, André. “Ontology of the Photographic Image.” Trans. Scott

      Richmond. 1945. PDF.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. 1978; New York: Farrar, Straus and

Giroux, 1973. Text.

—. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador, 2003. Text.

An Introduction

There have long been images of death. Animals brought down on the walls of Neolithic cave paintings, the broken bodies of the vanquished English in the Bayeux Tapestry, Mantegna’s depiction of the fallen Son himself in “The Lamentation Over the Dead Christ.” The grammar of such representation differs from that with which we are familiar, as the perspective that is now so intrinsic to our modern eye is only partially achieved in such works, or remains far from creative conception. What this art has in common, despite its temporal and stylistic variations, is its depiction of death— or, as Sontag would have it, its “interpretation” of death (a term which extends to anything else of the world, for that matter). There’s something unsettlingly and terrifyingly fascinating about imaged death and what it does. I’ve always taken a particular interest in it, mainly because I found it so upsetting and traumatic as a young (and even older) person.

Some of my earliest memories involve representations of, or connected to, death. To this day, I sometimes find myself a 5-year-old boy hiding behind a stair baluster at his uncle’s house, watching as a Germanic tribesman holds up the severed head of a Roman messenger on the Television Screen (Gladiator, 2000). Or, perhaps more formatively, I see again for the first time the death of Jek Porkins during Rogue Squadron’s attack run on the Death Star (Star Wars, 1977). I can also look up from my small desk and see two towers in smoke in the corner of my first grade classroom. For a long time, the challenge for me was making sense of death itself (which most children must tackle at some point). I can only now describe the feelings I had over fictionalized death as profound despair over seeing a person—a someone— dead or dying, albeit unrealistically and mediated. It was hard for me to separate image from idea, just as it was hard for me to understand that those dressed-up as Native Americans and Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony were actors, and not people living out real lives. This clashing of the real and the imagined factors prominently in my mind, and is a dichotomy that remains inexhaustibly interesting to me, especially in relation to media. I didn’t know what to make of it, but the feelings of confusion and sadness endure, even as I’ve become so accustomed to such images. While some kids were watching Blackhawk Down in first grade, I comfortably sat through PBS programs and children’s films. My viewing was strictly filtered until 10 or so, to one uncle’s dismay: “You need to show them how the real world is!” Despite this parental oversight, I did thirst, in a way, for “how the world is.” My mother worriedly consulted various elementary school teachers in the beginning of my local news consumption phase (also first grade). There was a desire to be informed, to see how things were. Whether or not such sensationalized and blood chasing, “death sells” media is the world is questionable. It is one vision of it—and it has an impact.

In such anecdotes, I suppose, are the roots of this research project: my longstanding and evolving relationship with death and media, but also, my interest in war and images. Primarily, in what images do, and within this project, what Photography does. Specifically: the function of photographic images of death throughout history, and in the historical present, if there is any function at all. I will be looking at various ways of thinking about Photography, so to better understand the medium itself. This will also entail readings of theory about death in Photography. My readings will be mainly of Sontag, Malkowski, Barthes, Bazin, and others’ thinking, with an especial focus on Susan Sontag’s monographs On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others, and Jennifer Malkowski’s work, which we will look at in class. Furthermore, I will explore the utilitarian and alternative applications of Photography historically, and how that has evolved. This invariably leads to the networked aspect of my research, which will look at how such imaging (of death, focusing on current conflict and misery) is networked, primarily on social media. This work will be built around my own detailed thinking about one modern image of death, that of Aylan Kurdi, the “drowned Syrian child.” I am researching the evolution of photo-documentary death, in order to determine how social media (networks) index such imagery and affect our relationships with it, so to better understand the affective and socio-political potential of Photography. Photographic death is undeniably dreadful, but I hope you’ll try and work through it with me.