LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The photograph of a drowned Syrian child lying face down on a Turkish beach has been ranked the most powerful of recent times in a survey of aid agencies by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The image of Aylan Kurdi has been credited with giving a human face to the refugee crisis that engulfed Europe in 2015, triggering intense public debate that is still shaping politics on the continent.
Representatives of four charities placed the image top in a survey asking aid agencies to rank the five most powerful photos related to a humanitarian issue, while several others had it in their top five.
“Researchers have shown that the image was shared millions of times on social media, and in its wake, people were more likely to use the term ‘refugee’ instead of ‘migrant’,” said Oxfam communications director Matthew Sherrington.
“It was a rare moment of moral outrage and empathy that demanded an answer,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.
Matthew Saltmarsh of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), which considered the image too distressing to publish at the time, said it had brought about a “sea change” in public attitudes towards migrants coming to Europe.
It also boosted funding for charities as it went viral on social media and sent shockwaves around the world, said the spokesman for the UNHCR, one of 10 groups to respond.
The survey came after an image of a crying Honduran toddler at the U.S. border swept social media last month, swelling the tide of outrage that pushed President Donald Trump to back down on a policy of separating families.
The haunting photograph of Omran Daqneesh, a bloodied child covered in dust sitting stunned in an ambulance in Aleppo, was also ranked highly by aid agencies.
“The conflict in Syria has raged for a long time, there was a sense that the UK public had become immune to stories of what was happening on the ground,” said Hannah Richards of CARE International UK.
“The photograph gave the conflict a human face, it cut through all the words written about the suffering and made it feel real to people.”
Jemilah Mahmood, under secretary general for partnerships at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), said both images had helped bring about a more humane discussion of migration.
But her top pick was an image of volunteers in Liberia during the Ebola crisis wearing blue smocks and yellow gloves, their hands locked in prayer.
Some charities said specific images had a measurable impact on financial support.
A black and white close-up of a Rohingya boy who had climbed onto an aid truck in Bangladesh was the top choice of Bangladeshi development agency BRAC, which said it had galvanized opinion overnight.
“Almost immediately, we saw a surge in public interest, financial support, grassroots advocacy initiatives, and peer-to-peer campaigns,” said Sharad Aggarwal, vice president of BRAC USA.
The Catholic Relief Service (CRS) highlighted an image of Yazidi girls posing in sparkly dresses in the Iraqi city of Erbil after fleeing Islamic State fighters that went viral when it became the first photo to be tweeted by Pope Francis.
“Following his tweet over the next six months, CRS received donations from over 7,000 private donors totalling $3.3 million,” said communications director Kim Pozniak.
Older images also drew attention, with Islamic Relief USA highlighting photographer Steve McCurry’s portrait of Sharbat Gula, the green-eyed “Afghan Girl” who featured on the front cover of National Geographic in 1985.
“It’s a deservedly iconic picture because even though it shows suffering, it shows a classic beauty that the suffering can’t entirely eviscerate,” said spokesman Syed Hassan.
Despite the power of a heartbreaking photograph, positive images can also effect change, said the Danish Refugee Council.
The picture of the Olympic Refugee Team in 2016 showed smiling faces of athletes brought together for the games in Rio de Janeiro, waving white flags.
“It was a strong way to remind us all that refugees are people with resources, talents, and ambitions,” said Secretary General Christian Friis Bach.
“That they should not primarily be treated as victims, but as fellow human beings who have been deprived of their right to a safe and dignified life.”
Reporting by Adela Suliman; additional reporting by Umberto Bacchi, Isabelle Gerretsen and Sebastien Malo. Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org