Why photo of surrendering Syrian child touches hearts

The image of a Syrian girl with hands raised over her head has gone viral and revived concern over the plight of men, women, and children in the war-torn region. What gives one photo such power?

She thought it was a gun, so she raised her tiny hands in surrender.

But the man who shot 4-year-old Hudea carried a camera, not a weapon. In that moment of childlike confusion, Turkish photographer Osman Sağırlı was able to capture what, in more ways than one, is the greatest casualty of Syria’s war – the loss of innocence. And perhaps because of the absence of overt violence in the image, the photo of this toddler has seized the attention of the world.

“I was using a telephoto lens, and she thought it was a weapon,” Mr. Sağırlı, who took the picture at the Atmeh refugee camp in Syria in December, told the BBC. “I realised she was terrified after I took it, and looked at the picture, because she bit her lips and raised her hands.”

Photography has long played an important role in wartime coverage. Some of the most iconic war photos – such as Eddie Adams’ picture of a South Vietnamese police chief shooting a Viet Cong suspect point-blank or Huyng Cong Nick Ut's photo of a naked 9-year-old Vietnamese girl fleeing from a napalm bombing – show disturbingly graphic scenes that invite viewers to watch even as it prompts them to cringe or look away. For some, such photos invoke anger or horror. 

Most photographers, including award-winning British war photographer Don McCullin, say that war photos are supposed to make people uncomfortable.

“[I]t is the photographer's job to show some of that horror, to say: this is the real war, this is what it's like on the ground, this is what war does to you,” Mr. McCullin wrote for The Guardian.

But not every war photo that inspires change or invokes compassion is an effigy of blood and gore. Joe Rosenthal’s famous Iwo Jima battlefield portrait only implies that violence had occurred, as evidenced by the debris surrounding the six men raising the flag.

What made the image famous, however, was its message: “It triggered a wave of national hope that Japanese forces would soon be crushed and peace was near,” according to CNN.

Sağırlı’s photo of the Syrian girl also tells a poignant story: This is what the day-to-day experience of war can do to a child. Sağırlı pointed out that Hudea’s automatic response was vastly different from how a child in peacetime would react.

“Normally kids run away, hide their faces or smile when they see a camera,” he told the BBC.

When placed in context, Hudea’s response becomes somewhat understandable. More than 10,000 children have died as a result of the Syrian war since it began in 2011, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Of those who have survived, about 5.6 million are living in poverty and poor health, displaced, or caught in the line of fire, with about 2 million of those forced to live as refugees in neighboring countries, the UN Children’s Rights and Emergency Relief Organization, or UNICEF, reported.

Education has ground to a halt: More than 4,200 schools have been destroyed or damaged, or are now used as displacement camps.

UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake, in a blog for the organization’s website, called Syria “the worst humanitarian crisis in recent memory.”

“What choices will these children make?” he wrote. “What choices do they have?”

At a time when ISIS (also known as Islamic State or IS) beheading a single Western hostage garners more global attention than the plight of millions of war refugees, the photo of a Syrian toddler surrendering seems to be touching hearts in a way that statistics, blogs, or a gory image haven't – if the responses on Twitter are any indication.

Already Hudea's photo has been shared more than 20,000 times on Twitter since Gaza-based photojournalist Nadia Abu Shaban posted it last week, and has “moved people all over the world,” PRI’s Steven Davy wrote.

“Perhaps it's Hudea's eye, or the knowledge that the conflict in Syria is still raging on after years, creating thousands upon thousands of homeless children like her,” Mr. Davy continued. “Either way, the image speaks volumes.”

Here are a few of the organizations working with war refugee children from Syria: UNICEFSave the ChildrenCARE, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

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