Children on the Beach

handala-syrianchild1I can’t bear to disseminate the now all-too familiar and completely devastating photograph of the drowned Syrian child on the beach alluded to in this drawing.


Another image of the child, in the arms of a Turkish police officer, is reminiscent of one that the photographer Tyler Hicks made for the New York Times in Gaza last year, of a boy running on the beach carrying a dead child.

You can see the image and read what I wrote about it here.

Another lifeless body of a boy on the beach. Once more one child’s suffering stands for that of all children in war. And also once more the hope, embedded in the very idea of photography, that an image can have the power to turn the hearts of governments, to make them eager to respond to suffering and open their doors so that refugee children and their parents  do not have to die trying to reach an elusive and reluctant safe haven.

Governments, and often people who support them unconditionally, seem remarkably capable of bearing these sights. Last year, Tyler Hick’s photograph was met by objections: it did not constitute balanced reporting; it failed to present the “other point of view,” the “other side” to the story that would have explained why the strike that killed the child had to take place. The people who found the photograph effective were for the most part already persuaded of the injustice and imbalance of the war.

This time perhaps the outcome will be different. What, after all, could possibly constitute the “other side”? What could explain the necessity for the body of a Syrian child named Aylan to wash up on the beach because in the course of a desperate attempt to reach Greece, his boat capsized and drowned him along with eleven other refugees? There has been some discussion about the wisdom of showing the images, for example because of the impossibility of obtaining the child’s consent, or because the picture could be seen as exploiting the tragedy of the refugees for gain. But such objections fade when we consider that the exploitation that counts here is not by the media but by ruthless smugglers taking advantage of the blindness and indifference to the fate of the refugees by the people, institutions, and governments who should be helping them.

One hopeful sign is the image in the  drawing with which I began. It is a variation on one of the most ubiquitous images in Palestine. “Handala” is the trademark figure of the political artist Naji al-Ali, assassinated in London in 1987.

HandalaThis barefoot refugee child remains forever ten years old, the age that his creator was when he was forced to leave his home in Palestine in 1948. Handala forever turns his back to us.



He faces countless atrocities and injustices and is reproduced in countless forms and at all skill levels on walls everywhere in Palestine.


A crude Handala figure in the Dheisheh refugee camp, Palestine. Photograph: Margaret Olin

Walter Benjamin interpreted Paul Klee’s painting, Angelus Novus, as the “angel of history.”


Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920. Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

His horrified expression registers the catastrophes that pile up as he is driven backward into the future.

I like to think of Handala as an Angelus Novus seen from the rear. We can view the catastrophes of history along with him as he waits, hands clasped behind him. But here with the angel lying drowned on the beach, history ends as indeed it does wherever a child dies.

The transformation of the image of the boy in the photograph into Handala, if the example is followed and it continues to evolve into other forms, is a hopeful note, suggesting that this photograph might transcend the photograph by Tyler Hicks. It could become not merely the most recognizable image of a summer news story but an “iconic” image along with images like the “hooded man” in Abu Ghraib.


The “hooded man” ran through a long series of variations – even appropriating an ad for the IPod.


The hooded man turned into the very image of torture and profoundly affected the way that the world saw wartime interrogation and the treatment of prisoners. We need a profound change in our image of the refugee, too. Perhaps the photograph of the boy on the beach can help bring it about. But perhaps it is too difficult to look at. I for one, cannot bring myself to reproduce it.

text © Margaret Olin 2015

This post originated in a comment I made on a facebook post by Nicholas Mirzoeff. Thanks to Ahmed Hmeedat for alerting me to the drawing in Arabi21 News.

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