The image of Aylan Kurdi is a powerful communication tool for positive action on refugees

Exactly two weeks ago today, Britain woke up to a photograph that dominated the front pages of most UK national newspapers: Aylan Kurdi's lifeless body washed up on the Turkish shoreline, writes Jai Jethwa of Fishburn.

Did Aylan Kurdi's image mobilise public opinion? asks Jai Jethwa
Did Aylan Kurdi's image mobilise public opinion? asks Jai Jethwa
The image rightly focussed Europe's full attention on the migrant crisis, with many commenting that the picture finally gave a human face to an important issue and inspired people to put pressure on the UK government to relax its immigration laws.

Indeed, one day after the image of Kurdi was projected onto the world stage, a petition started by The Independent urging the UK to accept a greater share of refugees had gathered 200,000 signatures. 

By Sunday, a string of online petitions collectively had reaped near to one million supporters, and a new multitude of grassroots organisations claiming solidarity with refugees rushed to offer practical help in whichever way they could.  

The remarkable outcome of such spontaneous collective action is its ability to deliver genuine change. 

As a response to the increased popular agitation around Britain’s ability to accommodate more refugees, David Cameron visited a Lebanese refugee camp and has pressured other EU leaders to follow the UK’s example in playing their part in solving the refugee crisis. 

This is from a political leader who had warned of ‘swarms’ of oncoming migrants only a few months earlier. 

Would we have seen this change of attitude without the publication of Kurdi’s image? 

Certainly not – it’s the colossus of changing public opinion that has forced Cameron to make a remarkable U-turn.

Perhaps more cynically the real question is whether, in another two weeks’ time, people will still be engaged with the issue at all, given the ferocity of the fast-moving media landscape. 

After all, the issue is complex, with a number of root causes and no simple solution. 

It wouldn’t be unfair to observe that the crisis has come at an appalling human cost for many months now before the current media focus. 

If it has been ignored by both the people and policymakers previously, might it be ignored once more when the media packs up and moves on? 

Though the future of the issue is uncertain, one thing is for sure - the image of Kurdi joins a catalogue of images in history that have acted as emotional triggers for change and which have marked sea-changes in public opinion. 

The images of Kurdi, taken by Turkish journalist Nilufer Demir, will now rank as one of the definitive 'photos that changed the world', alongside Jeff Widener’s Tiananmen Square Tank Man and Nick Ut’s Vietnam Napalm Girl. 

So what marks all of these images? 

Each photograph resonates on a visceral level, distilling the brutality of the episodes they represent. They inspire activism because they are honest, and because they are real. In simple terms, the images make people feel and relate, and in turn generate and ignite some kind of positive response. 

The image of Kurdi is remarkable because it has been a mobiliser – a catalyst for an important change.
Like Widener’s and Ut’s images before it, it started a conversation, and when these conversations begin, they enable real and lasting change. This is the effect popular engagement and pressure can have at its most powerful. 

There is no way to reverse the horror Kurdi experienced – but the inspired public response after the publishing of his image is illustrative of the power of grassroots-driven action.  

Jai Jethwa is a graduate consultant at Fishburn

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