A Picture’s Worth: Photography, Storytelling and the Mission of the Church

Aylan

The picture above, showing a happy, smiling three year old, is of Aylan Kurdi. Aylan’s story has become famous over the last few days; together with his family, he was fleeing Syria and the hell that country’s become.

There’s another image of Aylan, one that has become more famous – his tiny body, washed up on a beach in Turkey. His family would prefer he be remembered for his life, and who would begrudge them that, but the image of his death marks a watershed in how Europe sees refugees. Only a few weeks ago, refugees were being described as a ‘swarm’ and newspapers, at least in the UK, were calling for the army to be sent into Calais to sort them out, when they weren’t demonising anyone who dared flee a war zone. Now a heartbreaking picture of Aylan has become one of those images that change the world.

Kim Phuc, running down a Vietnamese street covered in napalm.

Princess Diana holding the hand of a man living with AIDS

News reports from the Ethiopian famine of the 80’s

In all these cases, someone picked up a camera, composed a shot, put the results out into the world and changed the narrative; the tragedy of Aylan’s short life, caught in a stark, haunting moment in time, helped the world to stop treating refugees purely as a problem that needs to go away as soon as possible and to treat them as humans. We know their faces and with that, we’re made ready to hear their stories.

That’s where those who can hear those stories, and process them in words or film or sound need to enact their sacred duty to make other voices heard, to reveal the hidden stories that turn statistics into our sisters and brothers.

This leaves the Church with a difficult burden. Written on the opening pages of the Bible is the sacred truth that we’re all made in the image of God, with all that implies. We’re not called to dehumanise those around us, we’re not called to shrug as the bodies of children are washed up on the beach. We’re called to act as the hands and feet and voice and heart of Christ in the hells of the world.

And so, if a photograph can change the world, if hearing a single story suddenly reminds us all that all those other refugees have stories too, then maybe priests and preachers need to take a step back. The traditional voices of the Church aren’t privileged as they used to be; let’s stop whining about that and speak out in different ways. Now the photographers and the storytellers among us are on the frontlines of the Kingdom. Let’s support them in their calling; let’s get ahead of the narrative and speak out for all the Aylans out there before other children are found alone on the beach.

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