Blog Disability Family Grief Zuzu

Stop Showing Me Pictures of Your Children

I woke up yesterday morning, as I do most September mornings, thinking about my daughter Zuzu’s birthday which is this month on the 23rd in fact. This year it’s her 19th. 19 years old! Where does time go? So, I got up, took out the photos of her that I keep in my wallet, and looked at them, thinking again, “19 years old, crikey.” Then I saw the pictures of the dead toddler on the beach in Bodrum.

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I woke up yesterday morning thinking about my daughter Zuzu’s birthday which is this month on the 23rd in fact. This year it’s her 19th. 19 years old! Where does time go? So, I got up, took out the photos of her that I keep in my wallet, and looked at them, thinking again, “19 years old, crikey.” Then I saw the pictures of the dead toddler on the beach in Bodrum.

Zuzu won’t be 19 because she died in 2005, aged 8 “and a bit”. I found her body on the morning of July 17th. It comes back to me as the most real thing every so often in dreams and in daylight.

So, I turned to the Internet, to my social media friends, acquaintances and the famous folks I follow for some solace. What do I see? I see hundreds of happy pictures of their children playing, smiling, growing up.

I see my friends, as fathers and mothers, uncles, aunts, carers. I see images of live children and they make me so upset that I want to scream:

“Stop making me look at these upsetting photographs of your children! Stop it! How dare you! How dare you!”

But what I really mean is, “How dare you make me realise that outside of my personal grief and loss is happiness, joy, love.” As time goes on being forced to see these images improves my perceptions of the world.

The impingement of the world outside into my feelings – feelings that I thought were impenetrably permanent – proved to be a good thing once I had let that impingement become a freedom.

Zuzu Smith - 1997
Hello Smiler

My dead child was beloved. My experience of discovering her lifeless body was horrific.

However, images of your children and your happiness give me pause for thought, and that thought provides me with energy for action.

I can’t possibly legislate for what you feel are powerful, thoughtful, happy images but to me – less so with each passing year by the way – are agonies caught in time.

As Susan Sontag said:

“Photographs may be more memorable than moving images, because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow. Television is a stream of underselected images, each of which cancels its predecessor. Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again. Photographs like the one that made the front page of most newspapers in the world in 1972—a naked South Vietnamese child just sprayed by American napalm, running down a highway toward the camera, her arms open, screaming with pain—probably did more to increase the public revulsion against the war than a hundred hours of televised barbarities.”1

This means that there is hope or at least action towards hope. You see, for a long while I hid myself from images of your live children, but that proved impossible and, it transpired, not even useful to me, to you or to anybody. So action towards hope, seeing the photographs and being moved by them to action proved a good thing for me; against my will, despite my horror and upset.

All this brings me to the image of the Syrian Kurdish toddler, dead on the beach in Bodrum, Turkey both lying alone, sodden, dressed, “normal”, “real” but still drowned and still alone, and also in the arms of the police officer. That image, is like the image of 9-year-old Kim Phuc, napalmed and screaming, running down Route 1 near Trang Bang in Vietnam on June 8, 1972.

That child lived and has her own children. But her terrorised image shook America and the rest of the world. It was a good image inasmuch as it was brave to capture it, and to publish it.

“Bang! An unnamed child! In pain! Panic! Alone! Naked! Burned! Whose fault!? How do we save her!”, that image was taken from a TV news report, stilled, frozen into a visual solid and thrown into the torpid pool of TV coverage and other images of adult soldiers. It caused great tides and it drew the attention of those people who had previously not given the war their attention – or had done by dint of support by inactivity.

The dead child in 2015 is called Aylan Kurdi. He was three-year-old boy. His five-year-old brother Galip also drowned. Aylan Kurdi’s picture is rightfully all over the world now. I didn’t want to see that image but not because of its medium. I never wanted to see or be upset by that image because of what it, and what dead Aylan Kurdi mean.

I didn’t want to see that image because it made my cry. I hope it has the same effect as Studs Terkel said of the picture of Kim Phuc:

“This is the metaphor for one of the crowning obscenities of our century. The kid in that plane that dropped the bomb probably didn’t see this little girl, did not know it hit her or destroyed the world in which she lived. This is what terrorism is all about. The impersonal aspect of it.3

But I was inactive. Your images that I did not want to see and felt I should not be forced to; those of your lovely, alive children and your time spent with them, they still hurt me deep inside. But seeing them has forced me to take action where before I was lost in the idea that life could never be anything other than grief. Thank you, you have forced me to be aware that love, hope and beautiful families can exist, that is good.

The image of little Aylan Kurdi also made me think about Zuzu, about finding her. I spent some hours in tears and shock. I then found that Aylan Kurdi’s image has caused me to sign petitions, donate money, and even – after discussion with my wife when she returns from a research trip – to consider providing room for a refugee family in my own house.

This is my way of saying that Aylan Kurdi’s image is the image of thousands. We mustn’t stop looking not even if it hurts us but because it does. Hiding is no excuse.

So, despite the headline: don’t stop showing me pictures of your children. They’re wonderful. You can’t possible legislate for my world by closing down yours in this case.

Aylan and his brother Galip Kurdi.
Aylan and his brother Galip Kurdi.


1On Photography, Susan Sontag, Penguin; New Ed edition (27 Sept. 1979) p13
2Napalm Girl Photo from Vietnam War Turns 40 from AP
3Studs Terkel quoted in The Girl in the Photograph: The Vietnam War and the Making of National Memory by Nancy K. Miller in JACOnline p262

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