Samu Communications | Samu: I see dead people
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Samu: I see dead people

negatives and positives of photography in campaigns


When is it right to display a dead child on the front page of a national newspaper? And what effects does this have? These are long debated questions, going back to at least the Boer War, and they raise fundamental ethical issues for campaigning organisations.

The current case, was sparked by the Independents bold decision to lead with Nilufer Demir’s photograph of the three year old Aylan Kurdi body, lying in the surf on the shores of Bodrum, Turkey. The unfolding reactions are already making their own headlines and this is just the start.

The power of a photograph to change a debate

How has a photograph been able to transform a “migrant crisis” into a “refugee crisis”? First of all there are the qualities of the photographer to consider. The power for transformational change of Nelufer Demir’s photograph is already being compared to Nick Ut’s famous photograph of Phan Kim Phuc during the war on Vietnam, and reopening the question can images change history?


As with all photography, being in the right place at the right time is an important element. As is the motivation to take the image, however disturbing. For Demir her decision was:

The best thing to do was to make this tragedy heard.


In both Demir and Ut’s cases the photograph received front page exposure in the mainstream media, it takes a strong editorial team to take such decisions (as explained by Ut in this interview), and they have to be able to justify this in the face of expected opposition.


There is the context of the subject in the photograph, and its ability to illustrate a story. The visual context of Demir’s photograph, a beach on the Southern edge of Europe, near where the historical Europe / Asia divide resides, is poignant. In Ut’s case, the background of billowing smoke, fired by napalm made the context of the conflict clear.

Then there is the political context of what makes the photograph ‘new, news’, how the image frames a debate.


News Timeline

The largest refugee crisis in Europe since the 1930’s has been increasing in intensity, as wars have taken their toll on populations. But it was the 2007—2008 financial crisis, and the consequential rise of the European right that have led the way in framing the debate that Demir’s photograph has so effectively challenged.

We can see for instance, that in 2005 the UKIP share of the vote amounted to 2.3% of the vote, but since the crash, has risen to 12.6%. This has been echoed across Europe.

With the growth in these disparate political movement so the use of negative campaign tactics around the movement of people has increased, which some media organisations have taken a particular interest in covering. One of these tactics has been the purposeful conflation of the terms ‘migrants’ with ‘refugees’, which have two distinct meanings.

It is in this context that Demir’s photograph entered. At a time of daily media coverage (in the UK) from Calais, from Hungary, one image stands to challenge years of a political narrative.

Promoting change

Its effects have been powerful enough to cause widespread revulsion of the refugee, migrant conflation, as seen in contrast to the claim as expressed by UKIP candidate Peter Bucklitsch that the ‘greed’ of Aylan Kurdi parents was the cause of his death.

Capture tweet

The reaction to Demir’s photograph may have taken some by surprise, with the positive campaign #RefugesWelcome that started with German football fans and has since spread.

And it’s causing further change to, even in the leadership and ranks of the Conservative party and beyond.

farron tweetcooper tweet

In just two days over 270,000 people have signed the petition, ‘Britain must accept its fair share of refugees seeking safety in Europe’, prompted by the Independent. A remarkable enough figure considering the Independent’s readership is under 58,000.

Celebrities, some business and faith leaders are lending support to challenge the negative discourse.

These are all welcome additions, on the path it is hoped, to establishing a consistent counter to the negative campaign tactics that have been employed for years.

Never just negative

It is rare that powerful images get to cause such a stir. One reason is various authorities negativity to what, they judge to be ‘negative’ imagery.

Colin Jacobson, in the introduction to his 2002 book ‘Underexposed’ wrote:

‘In recent times, a convenient myth has entered the debate. The public, it is alleged, do not want to be shown too much about the distressing consequences of their leaders’ decisions. Readers wish to be entertained, not overwhelmed with harsh reality. Censorship “by omission” has infiltrated the media as publications have progressively shied away from serious stories about the word.”

This is particularly true for campaigning organisations such as charities prompting the Advertising Standard Authority to issue guidelines on the use of ‘shock‘ tactics, with many others too issuing warnings about their overuse.

This has led to a preference for most to concentrate on positive campaigning, with some communications professionals advising that such an approach is ‘the safest and most common basic tone for campaigning‘ Positive campaigning does work and can be very effective, as I witnessed during my time at global tolerance. It is indeed the safest and most common tone.

But what Nilufer Demir’s photograph demonstrates, in an image that could, if it had been used by a charity, have been considered as being the epitome of a negative campaign, is that photographs are both positive and negative. A seemingly negative image can have positive effects. A ‘negative’’ image, can be used to counter a negative campaign. This is an important lesson for campaigning organisations.

Positive responses, but lasting damage?

Wholly negative approaches have been debated over many years, resulting in swathes of commentary and academic research. It’s been repeatedly noted that revulsion can cause political apathy, such a psychological reaction is even relied upon by the political parties that utilise such tactics. It can also trigger other emotions, prompting a positive counter response, as seen with #refugeeswelcome.

The difference is that whilst it is difficult to maintain momentum in positive campaigning, the inverse is not true. So it is not too surprising to see that it is being argued by researchers that this has profound consequences at the subtlest of levels, our genetics. The uncomfortable truth may well be that the negative leaves a longer lasting impression. It’s why we remember Ut’s photograph, not the subsequent life led by Phan Kim Phuc.