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The Sight of 200 Body Bags Roasting on a Beach in the UK Might Be Amnesty's Best Stunt Yet

This morning's protest highlighting the EU migrant crisis is an example of how effective and affecting protest art can be.

by Nell Frizzell
Apr 22 2015, 6:30pm

Brighton Beach this morning. Image: Amnesty International.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Today, on Brighton Beach in the United Kingdom, 200 hundred body bags lay across the pebbles, representing the corpses of the thousands who drowned in the Mediterranean this year. It was a stunt, by Amnesty International, to draw attention to the Don't Let Them Drown campaign. The bags, filled with local Amnesty volunteers, balloons, and pebbles, slowly roasted under the hot glare of the sun and, of course, the international press. The stunt was the perfect embodiment of what Amnesty International does best—they use the powerful tools of art, advertising, and theater to wrench our attention towards the gross injustices facing disempowered people across the globe.

By contrast, today, on the Southbank of the Thames, a giant edible gingerbread house was erected beside the river to advertise the multimedia experience Shrek's Adventures. Both pictures popped up on my Twitter feed within minutes. Never before has an image so visceral, so striking, so likely to make your stomach drop into your shoes, been followed by something so crass.

But that is the media landscape in which modern charities must operate; and it is a landscape Amnesty understands only too well. From sending a woman in a clear plastic suitcase around the baggage carousel of Munich Airport to protest against human trafficking to staging an impromptu display of Swan Lake outside the Russian Embassy during the Sochi Winter Olympics, Amnesty understand the power of an image to stop, to shock, and to make us want to act.

And they're not the only ones, of course. Greenpeace marched a three-ton polar bear through central London to highlight the threat posed by climate change; The Eclectic Electric Collective's Floating Cobblestones turned street riots into an absurdist party game between police and protestors; Pussy Riot used a balaclava-clad gig in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior to draw international attention to Russia's crackdown on dissent. In each case, the aesthetic, approach, and creativity of visual art was used to communicate a political message.

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"We have a lot of people who really understand the issues we're dealing with and how to communicate those most simply and clearly," says Amnesty's Press and PR Officer Naomi Westland. "Not with legal jargon or academic jargon—through words and pictures." The process, according to Westland, is to think what kind of images get conjured in the minds of the public when confronted with an issue like the torture of prisoners, migrants drowning out at sea, or adulterers getting stoned to death. Amnesty then take those images and translate them into a stunt, a poster, a campaign video, to force us into facing the very situations that makes us most uneasy; that we'd prefer to ignore.

"When you get a disaster on this scale—two massive shipwrecks and over 1,000 people having drowned in just one week—it cannot be ignored," says Westland. "It's imperative that the media step up and realize their capability to hold leaders to account on things like this. There's an emergency meeting of EU leaders tomorrow and we must demand that David Cameron goes into that meeting committed to a wide-ranging search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean. Because it will save lives."

Image: Amnesty International

Last year, Italy ended its search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean, replacing it with a border control operation that, by its very nature, does not extend into the international waters where many of these shipwrecks happen. As a result, 50 times as many people have died since the beginning of 2015, compared to the same period last year. According to Amnesty, the situation is likely to only worsen as the violence in Libya (where many of the fleeing Syrians who have drowned are trying to reach) continues. If the sight of 200 body bags roasting on one of our own beaches shocks people into taking action on the issue, by signing the Amnesty petition for instance, then the stunt will have done its job.

"You never know if a stunt of this kind is going to make it in the media," says Westland. "Journalists may have to cover other stories. But with social media, those pictures can be spread incredibly widely. It's really powerful when you see one of these images and it really works."

This one does work. The hot, claustrophobic horror of the body bags and the shocking realization that people are dying just beyond our own horizon will fill all but the most fascistic viewer with a mix of guilt, unease, and a desire to do something. It made me feel sick.

"I just hope that in this it translates into a good result at this EU leaders' meeting tomorrow," adds Westland, finally. "Otherwise we're going to hear more and more stories of people drowning out at sea."

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