Alan on Alan: A picture is worth a thousand words
We had the same name, Alan. But apart from that our worlds were completely different. Alan Kurdi was a Syrian Kurd, escaping with his family from war and terrorism. I’m a working class Peckham (London) boy and 50 years older than my namesake was. What the photograph of Alan’s lifeless body washed up on the Turkish beach did was to change public opinion about the biggest movement of refugees since the second world war, in a way that no media article, opinion piece or political speech had been able to do.
The situation in the UK before a photo of Alan’s body appeared on the front page of every UK newspaper was one in which the UK government and right-wing media were describing the refugee movement as Africans seeking a better life as “economic migrants”, and describing people in the Calais ‘jungle’ in the most inhumane way possible - “swarms of people” said the Prime Minister, “Migrants marauding around the area” said the Foreign Secretary. Statements designed to frame the issue to suit a government’s anti-migrant policies. In technical terms this communication amounts to propaganda - the intent was untruthful and it was designed to mislead the population.
A picture is worth a thousand words, is a phrase that originated in America in the 1920s. The toxic debate about the movement of refugees across Europe needed something to jolt reality into reportage and public opinion. Alan’s picture did that. The photograph of poor Alan by the Turkish press photographer, Nilufer Demir, not only documented but one sad example of the many thousands who have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean but it dramatically changed public opinion from inactive to active. Government speeches and press releases seemed meaningless. People demanded positive action. A petition on the Parliament website achieved 300,000 signatures within a day, and at the time of writing this piece was well on its way to being signed by half a million UK residents. People are offering spare rooms to refugees. Convoys of vans are travelling from Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England to Calais with tents and supplies for the migrants there. Football club supporters are planning to hold up long banners saying “Refugees welcome”.
The start of a different attitude to an issue that has now been reframed, despite the government’s wishes, as about humans and humanity.
Two Alans. My belief in the good of humanity is renewed. Alan Kurdi through a picture that was worth much more than a thousand words made this happen.
Alan Anstead, UKREN Coordinator
This blog first appeared on Migrants' Rights Network