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Images the catalyst for action but not change

  • 11 September 2015

There are few activities more unsettling than viewing images of deceased or distressed children. That doesn't need to be said.

I will frame it better: There few worse activities than looking at photos of such children which are being displayed as political propaganda.

I'm sorry if that is a triggering statement. Or perhaps I'm not sorry: this is a literal a snapshot of where we are right now; this is what the normalisation of white supremacy and middle-class-ness has done to us. It has made suffering both invisible and a spectacle.

I don't cry easily, but when I saw that image, I lost it. I'm not telling you that so you'll think I am kind or sympathetic.

I cried because that body looked so much like my tiny nephew, and his preciousness and vulnerability, both of theirs, was close to the bone. The man who found the body of Aylan Kurdi said something similar: 'I thought of my own son when I saw him.'

If you are confused about what privilege is, it's not having to connect with the gravity of oppression until you test out a horrific hypothetical on a family member.

By 'us', I am speaking to people who, like me, benefit from both the conditions that colonialism has made possible (affluence; freedom of movement; iPhones; cultural capital), and the conflicts that have emerged from old and new colonial interventions. Those conditions are invisible to us a lot of the time, but relics are always in plain view.

Take, for example, the university where I once studied, which still names many of its buildings after twentieth century eugenicists. The 'Berry Collection', named after an influential eugenicist at the university, housed Aboriginal ancestral remains, without consultation or permission, until the last decade. Can you imagine the purpose they served in a eugenicist's research? And how that research is part of the cultural legacy of the university's cultural capital? I'm sure that by now most people understand that pedigree and prestige are inextricable from oppression.

So perhaps totems of oppression need to be visible, repeated, and shared. The mantra those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it finds its expression in memorials and photographic relics. But I'm not convinced that visual tokens of suffering, shared within safe, affluent settings, changes much. The photographic archives of history include documentation of every kind of horror, and so far this hasn't prevented horror from recurring with alarming