I first found out about last week’s chemical attack in Idlib, Syria not through reading news alerts, but from seeing dozens of images and videos of dead Syrian children on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. As I gazed at these images, I could not help but think of the recent Whitney Biennial controversy involving a painting of Emmett Till, which depicted his disfigured, unrecognizable face as he lay in a coffin over sixty years ago. While the Syrian children had fallen victim to a very different kind of violence compared to Till, in both cases they were stripped of the dignity given to white people in death.
Over the past five years, media depictions of Black children killed by police and Syrian children murdered or maimed in war have largely featured grotesque exhibitions of their bodies. Pictures of Trayvon Martin lying on the grass went viral, as did images of Michael Brown lying dead on the pavement for hours. In Syria, the picture of little Aylan Kurdi drowned and washed up on shore, along with many other refugee children who did not survive their journey out of Syria, have been plastered across newspapers and newsfeeds.
In creating and spreading these images, Western creators and viewers have robbed these children of dignity in death, turning them into objects of consumption. They have also highlighted the very different treatment given to white children.
Would the artist who created the Till painting think, for example, that it was appropriate to paint a white child killed during the Sandy Hook school shooting? In the aftermath of Sandy Hook were our newsfeeds saturated with images of dead white children? The answer to both questions is no. We are not shown photos of white victims of mass tragedies because we inherently respect and dignify white bodies in death.
Some might argue that sharing images of dead children creates empathy for them and inspires people and governments to take action, whether that means advocating against police violence towards African-Americans or standing in solidarity with besieged Syrians. There is, however, very little evidence that these images (or the solidarity they might create) are galvanizing meaningful changes in policy. Syrians continue to die by the hundreds each day, while black children remain regular victims of police violence and white supremacy.
Images of dead brown and black bodies demonstrates a lack of empathy, not a capacity for it. It reinforces the notion that marginalized populations are like lab mice, to be pondered, theorized, and dissected – a spectacle to gaze at, an art piece to reflect on, clickbait, and an object to be consumed.