How A Photograph Can Change Everything
The Syrian conflict has been overtly ongoing since 2011. As of the beginning of 2015, half of the population of Syria has been displaced, internally and externally. Refugees have been flowing out of Syria for nearly five years. Nine million people are trying to find a safe place for their families. That's hard for anyone to get their minds around. Particularly those of us in comfortable Western society. In December of 2013 (nearly two years ago) the UN made an historic appeal for $6.5 billion (with a 'b') USD for international aid for the Syrian people. This was the largest aid appeal the UN has ever made. At that time the BBC reported that the "greatest fear of 4 out of 5 Syrians was that food would run out." Massive waves of people within the country have fled their homes. An incomprehensible number have left the country altogether. These are not people who had been living in deep poverty. These are people who were the educated, middle-class of a developed nation.
While most in the US knew there was something going on "over there," we were fairly ho-hum. "More unrest in the Middle East" was simply a blip on the 6 o'clock news followed by the weather, a viral cat video and a story about the latest in Jennifer Aniston's love life. In our American "good guy/bad guy" mindset, many consider all of the players involved in this complex situation to be "bad guys". Why should we be concerned? The head of the United Nations High Council for Refugees (UNHCR), Antonio Guterres states that "the victims become double victim — of the conflict and of the perception." This is real suffering. But it's not our suffering, so the reality fades into an abyss of ignorant comfort.
Our Western sensibilities were shocked into reality last week when the photograph showed up in the world's social media feeds. The power of that image rocked the world of many. A simple picture of a Syrian toddler, still in his little tennis shoes, dead on the beach because of a capsized raft. It moved us to tears and, in many cases, action. The Pope is now calling for every parish in Europe to host a refugee family and putting pressure on nations to figure out ways to assist those who are suffering. The news media has ramped up on the story of the global refugee crisis. Today the New York Times has published an article telling the story of Yazidi refugees from Northern Iraq who have resettled in Lincoln, Nebraska. The CEO of Chobani yoghurt is pledging $700 million dollars, which is about half of his wealth to assist those who are suffering because of events beyond their ability to control.
As gut-wrenchingly tragic and difficult as this photograph was to look at, this photograph may have changed everything as far as the way the world is viewing the greatest humanitarian crisis of our day. It's not hard to ignore a news report about millions of refugees who have no place to live, not enough food to eat and who are literally fleeing for their lives and for the lives of loved ones left alive. Particularly when the "news story" seems but a parenthesis to a host of unrelated and often ridiculous reports. They're just stories, like fairy tales. However, no one with an iota of a conscious can ignore a photo of the body of a drowned toddler dressed in a smart red shirt and tiny tennis shoes, as if he had just attended his first day of pre-school. The humanity of this tragedy becomes real. It's a global tragedy. It's not just Syria's crisis and Europe's problem anymore. It's our crisis. It's ours to help find a solution.
A photograph that changed everything. There have been other iconic photographs in the era of photography. The young man who stood in front of the tanks in Beijing. The little girl fleeing a napalm attack, unclothed and screaming. The firemen raising the flag after the 9/11 attack. They changed our perceptions of reality and moved us.
My hope is that through that the photograph of this little boy will do more than move us to uncomfortable tears. My hope and prayer is that the photograph of this little boy will move us to real compassion and action. My hope is that we will lay aside the politics of immigration and refugees and do what we can and what we should to assist those who are suffering, to empower those who are on the ground in those volatile parts of the world and to put pressure governments to do the right thing for those who are experiencing such deep misery. As a Christian, I believe the church has an opportunity to rise up and come alongside suffering like never before. Could this be the photograph that also awakens the church to the greatest humanitarian crisis of our day?
I do hope.
I hope believers begin to authentically pray for Syria and for her people. There are other less talked about countries like Iraq and Yemen who are also facing similar turmoil. Pray for them, too. I hope we begin to put our thinking and conversation and resources toward a solution. It's a complex issue. Solutions are not simple, nor formulaic. But, I do believe that Jesus wants his Church to be leading the world's response. Not governments or CEO's. The incarnate hands and feet of Jesus must lead the way.
Ann Voscamp and the organization I work for (World Relief) have partnered together to provide a way for Christians and for the church to respond to more than a photograph. World Relief has been working on the ground with Syrian refugees for several years, empowering believers to serve displaced peoples in their own communities. I encourage you to check out the website and consider your response — and your churches response.
May the church lead the world with a declaration of: We Welcome Refugees.
It's not just a story from "over there" any more. The photograph didn't make the situation for the Syrian people any more real. However, things just got real for the rest of the world. That's the power of not just the practice of photograph (something I love to do). It's the power of one photograph. It can change everything, and I think that's good.
Oddly enough, I really don't have a photograph for this post. So I didn't use one. I do not use photography that doesn't belong to me (without permission) and nothing I have will really add to what needs to be said here. There are a lot of websites which list "Photos that Changed the World." I'm quite certain this photo of a lifeless little boy on a beach will become a face for change in this crisis and added to the long line of iconic photography that changed and moved us in profound ways.