Rethinking an Iconic Image

“Image of Aleppo Boy Shocks World.”

That was the main headline of Friday’s daily Hamodia, appearing above a photo of a residential area in Aleppo, Syria, that was badly damaged by an airstrike, and an inset of stunned and weary-looking five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, caked in dust and with blood on his face, sitting in an ambulance after being pulled from the rubble.

In an age of instantaneous communication, within hours after a photographer snapped this powerful image capturing the horror that has beset the war-torn city, it had been seen by millions across the globe and appeared in news outlets throughout the Western world.

While this photo, which is already being referred to as iconic, has certainly managed to highlight and underscore the human suffering of the five-year-old civil war that shows no signs of abating, it appears unlikely that it will manage to galvanize the international community into doing something constructive to halt the bloodshed that has taken some 290,000 lives and displaced millions.

Although it is possible that something positive — at least in the realm of securing more humanitarian assistance — will come out of the widespread dissemination of this photo, there is something very disturbing about the actions of Mahmoud Raslan, the photographer who took it, and the culture which it represents.

In an article published by The Syria Campaign, an organization that describes itself as an “independent advocacy group campaigning for a peaceful and democratic future for Syria,” Raslan describes the sequence of events leading up to the taking of this picture.

“I live just 300 metres from the attack. Just after 7 p.m., following the evening prayers, we heard the explosions. I rushed there with three other media activists. The first thing I saw was three bodies on the ground being carried into an ambulance. Those were the neighbours of Omran’s family. The building was totally destroyed — all six floors were now rubble.

“Then I looked up to see another building half destroyed — Omran’s house. The White Helmet rescue workers climbed the stairs of a building nearby as the stairs at Omran’s house were destroyed. I joined in to help. The first survivor they picked up was Omran and I took my camera and started filming. I found out later that he is just four years old.

“It was too dark for good footage but I continued to film and followed him. The White Helmet carried the boy to the ambulance and laid him on the chair. I kept filming. It was then that I realized how traumatized the boy was and I changed the camera from filming to take a still picture. The tears started to drop as I took the photo. It is not the first time I’ve cried. I have cried many times while filming traumatized children. I always cry. We war photographers always cry…”

The fact that Mr. Raslan, who, living in Aleppo, has presumably seen more than his share of horrific war scenes, is still shedding tears is commendable. But after stating that he joined the “White Helmets” — a volunteer civil defense group in order to “help,” one has to wonder why he felt that the most appropriate way to assist this injured child was — despite the darkness — to film him.

Photojournalists can play an important role in informing a sometimes skeptical public about what is really transpiring in war zones, but there is something very crass and troubling about joining a rescue team in order to take pictures of injured civilians.

This problem goes far beyond Aleppo or other battlegrounds.

In an age of cell phones that double as cameras, it is commonplace in every conceivable emergency situation for bystanders, instead of trying to get help, to whip out a device and either film or shoot pictures — which they promptly post to social media groups without giving even a passing thought to the consequences of their actions. While it is extremely rude and distasteful to stare at someone who has been injured, taking and disseminating photographs of such a scene without permission is an unforgivable moral failure.

The fact that we live in an era that has dispensed with the most fundamental notions of decency and humanity, and are surrounded by a culture which proclaims that all that matters is who posts what the fastest, does not in any way dilute our responsibility to remember our obligations to act in a matter that befits human beings, which includes an obligation to exhibit genuine caring and extra sensitivity at all times to the feelings of others.

After Raslan photographed Omran Daqneesh, he watched as the White Helmets team continued to rescue the other family members.

Omar’s 11-year-old sister turned to Raslan with a simple request.

“Please don’t film.”

Raslan turned off his camera — and so should would-be photographers everywhere.