Today my news feed on Facebook has been filled with pictures of a little boy, Alan Kurdi*, lying dead on a beach, or being carried away by a Turkish police officer. Some of these have come from the feeds I get from newspapers, some have been associated with posts protesting about our government's attitude to Syrian refugees, and some have been posted by various angry friends on Facebook.
I fully understand why people are angry about the situation, and it appears that there has now been some movement in the British government's standpoint, although it's not yet clear what the outcome will be. There is a strong argument that an iconic image can sometimes be the only way to move things forward. For example, the photograph from Vietnam of Phan Thi Kim Phuc probably went some way to ending the US involvement in that war, and Michael Buerk's report from Ethiopia for the BBC mobilised Band / Live Aid in the mid 1980s.
Despite this, I still felt a profound unease about the pictures circulating of Alan, and I have been trying to work out why I feel that way. You may well have come to a different conclusion, and I understand, but sometimes it's good to ask ourselves searching questions. What was it that makes this different for me?
The central issue for me is the different media context we are now in. As soon as those terribly sad images became available online, they were circulating around social networks, blogs and websites everywhere. That's very different to them being embedded in a particular TV report, perhaps including warnings of the distressing nature of the material. And that's one of my uneasy feelings - publication of pictures of the dead are not commonplace, and there are usually some warnings for people about seeing them. Alan was unmissable on Facebook and Twitter today, and I'm sure many people, wanted that to be the case to get across the plight of refugees. I just don't think that was right method or the right use of images.
Let me try and explain, using a very different story. The other day I was talking to a man who, as a young soldier, volunteered to go and help at the Aberfan tragedy in south Wales, which killed 116 children and 28 adults. Understandably, the trauma of that affected him and his beliefs very profoundly, and I could still see it in his face. In fact, I can remember the grainy pictures on the TV news, and my mum explaining to me that children had died at school. I had just started school, and it happened on 21 Oct 1966 - the start of half-term.
It was a terrible tragedy, and there were a lot of difficult questions that needed answering about how the school had been put in danger. There were pictures of bodies - covered up, of course - being carried away. I vividly remember one photograph of a police officer carrying a survivor to safety. But with all that grief and sadness, if Facebook had existed, would anyone have posted a picture of a dead child, demanding answers from the National Coal Board? You can understand that anger might drive someone to do that, but it would have inflicted terrible grief on the child's family and community. Perhaps it's a mercy the technology wasn't available - I'm sure the newspapers, radio and TV were more than enough to bear for a community stricken with unimaginable sadness.
Alan's father, Abdullah, is still alive, although his mother and brother also died. It may be that Abdullah hasn't yet seen what is going on social media, and if that's true, it will be a mercy. I gather Alan's aunt lives in Canada. I wonder what it has been (and will be) like for them seeing these images coming up again and again, every time she goes on the internet. Ther's no notion of consent here. What do they think, and what are they feeling?
I've done a few children's funerals and on a couple of occasions I have been asked to hold the child, and when the request came, it was clearly important to the parents that I did so. You never forget moments like that, and I'm sure that Turkish police officer won't ever forget carrying Alan off the beach. He doesn't need constant reminders from social media, believe me.
Some posts have been even more confrontational with the image - as if using it gives the person posting an extra moral authority. Of course there need to be records of awful events - it's important lest we forget - but that doesn't mean that every detail of every awful event needs to be put out there, especially when emotions of those closest to the person are so recent and raw. And some posts seem to be portraying this as something new. Hundreds of people, including children, have been dying en route to Europe for months. That doesn't in any way diminish the terrible sadness of the death of Alan and other members of his family; they point us to a much wider community sharing similar experiences.
So I won't be sharing the pictures. That doesn't mean I don't care.
* Alan was Kurdish and according to his father, that is the correct spelling. The Turkish version of his name is Aylan.