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We Spoke to the Photographer Behind the Picture of the Drowned Syrian Boy

"What I saw has left a terrible impression that keeps me awake at night."

Nilüfer Demir. Photo: DHA

This past Wednesday, 12 people drowned while trying to reach a Greek island from Turkey on a rubber raft. One of the casualties was three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who had fled Kobane with his family.

The picture of the Syrian boy lying face down on the shores of Bodrum spread like wildfire through Turkish social media and was soon shared by people all over the world. Since then, it has become a symbol for the suffering of refugees in Europe. At the same time, the controversial photo has sparked a debate around the question of whether such a picture should or should not be published.


Some media outlets declined to publish the picture in order to protect the boy's dignity as well as sparing his remaining family the grief. Others decided on the opposite course of action and published the photo, arguing that the image should be used to raise awareness of the refugee crisis precisely because it is so shocking. If this is the result of our immigration policy, people need to see it.

Whichever side of the debate you find yourself on, it is clear that the image of Aylan Kurdi's dead body has already burned itself into the collective memory of Europeans; it is already a part of history. The photograph was taken by Nilüfer Demir, a photographer working for the Turkish agency DHA. We spoke to her about how the picture came into being.

VICE: Did you just stumble upon that scene? How did this photograph happen?
Nilüfer Demir: No, as a press photographer I often work from the beaches of Bodrum. My agency, DHA, and I regularly report on the refugees' situation. On that day, I was on the beach to document a group of Pakistani refugees that were just taking off in a rubber dinghy. That's how the bodies of the Syrian refugees were discovered.

Photo: Nilüfer Demir/DHA

What did you feel when you saw the boy?
I almost felt paralysed when I saw the child's corpse. Later, I learned that he was just three years old. At the same time, as a photographer I have a task that does not allow time for second guessing, for freezing. So, I took the pictures.


Has this sort of thing happened before – are drowned refugees a common sight in Bodrum?
Yes. In the last 12 years, I have taken pictures of many refugees getting into rubber boats to cross from Bodrum's beaches to the Greek island of Kos. The crossing is not without dangers and Aylan Kurdi was sadly not the first casualty. The photographers who work in the area have grown used to the sight of boat remains unfortunately.

Moreover, it's not only Syrians who try to cross. At the moment, we also see a lot of Afghani and Pakistani refugees in the area. Every war in the surrounding region drives refugees to the beaches of Bodrum and Kos. Turkey and Greece are a stepping stone to the European Union for many.

How do you feel about the picture having travelled around the world so quickly?
On the one hand, I wish I hadn't had to take that picture. I would have much preferred to have taken one of Aylan playing on the beach than photographing his corpse. What I saw has left a terrible impression that keeps me awake at night.

Then again, I am happy that the word finally cares and is mourning the dead children. I hope that my picture can contribute to changing the way we look at immigration in Europe, and that no more people have to die on their way out of a war.

There's been a lot of debate about whether those pictures should be published. What is your take on that?
If the picture makes Europe change its attitudes towards refugees, then it was right to publish it. I have taken many photographs of the refugee drama and none had such an effect on the public consciousness . But I certainly don't wish for more of those pictures.

Thanks, Nilüfer.