Humanity Washed Up Ashore


In 2011, a civil war erupted in Syria. A once little known country became the epicenter of international news as the small revolution transformed into a bloody, violent struggle to live. Afterwards, images and videos of these violent occurrences flooded the Internet. Since the start, the people of Syria have desperately been trying to evacuate their homes and claim asylum in neighboring and even Western countries. Lately, more information is being shown about the displacement of thousands of Syrians, and in the midst of the revealing of the refugee crisis, a single image of a Syrian toddler dead on the shores of Turkey has finally, years later, forced people to open their eyes.

Humanity washed up ashore that day. The image of the toddler circulated the Internet, appeared in news broadcasts, and was displayed on covers of journals and newspapers within a matter of days. People from all corners of the world were shocked speechless. Emotion filled their hearts and fell from their eyes. After being blind for so long, they could now see that Syrians were suffering and needed help. This had become an issue of humanity rather than nationalism, race, religious or political views. Laying with his face down in the sand, hunched over ever so slightly, and his clothes and shoes clinging to him, the image has become iconic and a symbol of the refugee crisis. “…It’s useful to think about what makes some images iconic, with an impact that transcends the time and place in which they were created… They seem to communicate an essential truth, not only about the situation that spawned them, but about human nature – particularly in conditions of crisis and adversity,” (Ben-Ghiat). In this paper, I will be discussing the historical and socio-economical contexts that encompass the image, as well as the 2 moral-ethical and socio-political impacts it had through the type of visual rhetoric it projects to its audience.

When this image hit the Internet, many Turks were tweeting it with the hashtag, “#KiyiyaVuranInsanlik,” which translates to “Humanity Washed Up Ashore,” (Mackey). In a simple statement, these words sum up the problem that circulated around social media with the release of the image: Why hasn’t humanity tried to help these fellow humans and prevent this from happening? Almost immediately, humanitarian groups began advocating for the refugees in Syria with hopes to fundraise and then aid the people. News began circulating of the Syrian refugees stuck at a Hungary train station. One video showed a man holding his wife and baby on top of a set of train tracks as Hungarian police officers violently snatched them apart. Social media erupted with users condemning the actions of the Hungarian officers and the treatment of the refugees. With the image of the young boy freshly engraved in their minds, people began to demand and advocate for the better treatment of the refugees. Most recently, Facebook famous “Humans of New York” began sharing images from Greece of refugees and their tragic stories.

What the young Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, sparked was a movement towards bringing awareness to the Syrian refugee crisis although it has been an issue for years. But why did it take an image of a young boy to start this when if the world had come together to aid the refugees, perhaps Aylan would still be with us today? “Perhaps the photo resonated with so many because of the stark nature of it – it’s not always the norm for international and national media to run a photo so graphic,” (Shalby). While the author of this article has a point, what makes this image considered ‘graphic?’ When we hear ‘graphic,’ we tend to think of blood, masses of bodies, and other disturbing results of violence. However, this was not violent. The boy lies on the ground 3 peacefully, almost as though he is sleeping. Nothing violent caused his death. There is no blood. To the uninformed viewer, it looks like a silly little boy who simply fell asleep. What makes this image graphic is that no one likes to look at a child that could possibly be their own, their nephew, their grandson, or their brother while knowing that they could have done something to help stop this. Without being able to see his full face, this little boy could become any one of our loved ones. This is what makes the image so powerful. It takes a foreign land, foreign war, and foreign race and makes it suddenly familiar. The angle of the shot, the placement of his body, and the red shirt and blue shorts he is wearing makes all the difference. All of a sudden, he is “normal.” Four years of images and videos on the war in Syria have been released for millions to see – some much more graphic and disturbing to watch – but the reason this one makes such an impact is because you see the innocence of a child who died trying to escape. He did not die in war – not by a gunshot or an explosion. Aylan died by trying to leave for a normal life, and never had the chance to start it.


This is only the introduction to the paper. For more, please feel free to contact me.

© Karina Gomez, 2015