Because I’m studying iconography and social media at MIRIAD, and because my supervisors are Simon Faulkner, Farida Vis, and Jim Aulich, I have been extraordinarily fortunate to work with a smart and very engaging group of researchers. My good fortune has been augmented by the fact that because of all of this, I am part of the Visual Social Media Lab. This expands my interaction with smart and very engaging researchers that much farther, extending outwards into a wide variety of disciplines associated with analysing social media.
Recently, Farida organised a number of VSML researchers to produce a “rapid response” report about the impact of the death of Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian child who drowned, along with his brother, mother, and a slew of other people as they attempted to cross the sea to Greece and seek refuge in Europe. The pictures of Aylan taken by photographer Nilufer Demir were shocking and powerful, and they helped change the debate about these desperate people—before the photos were published, they were referred to as “migrants”; immediately afterwards, people saw them as “refugees”. The Lab’s report will be published shortly, in partnership with Magnum. You can read summaries on the Lab’s website. A draft of my report, “On the Iconology of Aylan Kurdi, Alone“, is available for reading online. Potential readers should be forewarned that the article deals frankly about death and links to pictures of dead children. Here is the abstract of my contribution:
Iconography and iconology have traditionally been restricted to interpreting works of “high” art. Here I use them to explore the impact of the Aylan Kurdi images. By examining iconographically their conceptual and formal antecedents, as well as the pictures that social media users have made in response to those images, we might come to understand their interpretations of this event in a broader visual context. A joint iconographic and iconological exploration might provide an insight into why they resonated within a broader European context to such an extent that they shifted the debate about the status of refugees.
I am very grateful to Farida and the rest of the Visual Social Media Lab for the opportunity to write alongside them—however harrowing the subject—and for the comments that I received from them, which immeasurably enriched my work.