Nilufer Demir, the photographer who awakened our conscience

Demir has joined an honoured line of photo-journalists who have brought distant wars to people’s doors with a single arresting image


The death of little Aylan Kurdi can’t be reversed. But thanks to Nilufer Demir, it has served to remind us that wars lead to human tragedies, not just “collateral damage”. Photo: Nilufer Demir/DHA/Reuters
The death of little Aylan Kurdi can’t be reversed. But thanks to Nilufer Demir, it has served to remind us that wars lead to human tragedies, not just “collateral damage”. Photo: Nilufer Demir/DHA/Reuters

Nilufer Demir isn’t a name most of us would have heard of before today. Maybe not even today. Not even after little Aylan Kurdi’s body was found washed ashore, on the Mediterranean coast near the Turkish resort of Bodrum.

But Nilufer Demir should be a household name today, for without her we would still be going to sleep smugly, not haunted by the tears of a father who lost his two little boys aged three and five along with their mother. Without Nilufer Demir, we wouldn’t have woken up to the awful tragedy unfolding before our eyes as thousands of people risk their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean in search of a safer home for their families.

Demir, a correspondent and photographer with Turkey’s Dogan News Agency, used her camera to capture the painful image of the little boy lying with his face in the sand, clad in a red T-shirt and shoes as if going out on a school trip. On Twitter, Demir tweeted: “Tomé la foto para mostrar la tragedia” (I took the picture to show the tragedy). It was a picture that will haunt us all forever, and hopefully make us more aware of the refugee crisis in Europe which has already seen nearly 2,000 people killed this year, according to Geneva-based International Organization for Migration. Demir’s photo tells the sad tale of these thousands of desperate men, women and children driven by war and strife from countries like Syria and Iraq and seeking asylum in what they hope are safer lands.

Her one photo, which has appeared since Thursday on the front pages of newspapers as well as on television channels across the world, is suddenly drawing much-needed attention to the tragedy of Europe’s refugees. With this, she joins an honoured line of photo-journalists who have brought distant wars to people’s doors with a single arresting image.

In 1972, Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong Ut shot a picture of nine-year-old Vietnamese girl Kim Phuc’s agony as she ran down a street to escape the flames from an aerial napalm attack. It became the abiding image of the Vietnam war. Similarly Robert Capa’s images from the beaches of Normandy in France brought alive all the tensions of D-Day, 6 June 1944, with the Allied forces ready to launch the final assault that could end the second world war.

CNN reported that “Demir, 29, has worked for Dogan News Agency, also known as DHA, since she was a teenager” and has “been covering the refugee crisis for months and has photographed many dead migrants”.

The death of little Aylan Kurdi can’t be reversed. But thanks to Demir, it has served to remind us that wars lead to human tragedies, not just “collateral damage”.