Syrian refugees: what the photo of Alan Kurdi can and can't do

The stark and simple photo of Turkish police officer carrying the very small and lifeless body of a Syrian child has sparked public outcry in Canada, but one professor from Wilfrid Laurier University says it's not enough to change Canadian refugee policy.

A political scientist from Wilfrid Laurier University explains the weakness of powerful imagery.

A Turkish police officer carries the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi, one of a dozen Syrian refugees who drowned off the coastal town of Bodrum, Turkey. (DHA/Associated Press)

The stark and simple photo of the small and lifeless body of a Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, washed up on a beach has sparked public outcry in Canada, but is it enough to change Canada's response to the Syrian refugee crisis? 

Alan Tompkins, broadcasting and online journalism expert with the Poynter Institute, says a single photo can be a catalyst for change. 

"There's something about a human body suffering enormous agony in pain and death-there's just something about that, that forces us to deal with it," he said. 

"One of the reasons why the U.S. and other countries went to Somalia is because of the image of a starving child in Somalia. One of the reasons that we left Somalia is because of the image of a U.S. marine being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu."

But not all experts agree with him. 

Simon Kiss, political scientist and professor of digital media and journalism at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., was on The Morning Edition with host Craig Norris on Friday. Here is some of what he had to say about the power of images. This interview has been edited and condensed. 

On what people are getting out of this photo: 

"The number one thing the photo accomplishes is it does increase the salience or the awareness of the Syrian refugee crisis on a broad mass of people's agendas. So, a lot more people are going to be aware that there's a big problem in Syria than if the photo hadn't been published."

On how long the photo will continue to attract attention:

"It's tough to predict how long it will last. I mean, it certainly has characteristics of an iconic photo, but there are a lot of things different from the world that we live in now. It's much more flooded with other types of digital media. So, it's possible that these kinds of photos will actually be diluted in that digital sea."

On why this photo won't change public policy: 

"People have a powerful ability to process information and put it in line with their pre-existing views about public affairs and about issues. So, people who are inclined to support the government...may follow the prime minister in believing that Canada is already doing more than its fair share of accepting Syrian refugees. People who are predisposed to be against the government are going to take that photo and draw different conclusions. So I'm not sure in that dynamic how much space there is for people's views to change."

On how politicians will use the photo for their own ends: 

"This is a bit of a crisis situation for the government and it's tough for them that this happened right in the middle of the campaign and that they have to deal with it. But, in listening to the prime minister, I thought that he has a way to frame his position and his government's—his party's—reaction to this story...that I think they can come up with an argument that can maintain support in their universe."

On how the photo won't affect the vote: 

"Let's not forget that this crisis was ongoing for months before this picture was taken. So, there are tens of thousands, if not more, people who have had precisely the same fate as that boy, and they are invisible to our public consciousness. Yes, people are moved to take action, people are protesting against public policy, and people are talking about it. That is the power of the image, but people have a limitless number of issues that are going to figure into their decision on who to vote for."


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