This year has seen the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. More than 920,000 migrants are estimated to have travelled to Europe by sea alone in 2015 (according to the International Organization for Migration), making their way through Turkey, across the Mediterranean to Greece, Italy and the Balkans, and on, into the heart of the European Union. Our response, in Britain and across the EU, was split. Should we welcome these refugees, or turn them back? Could we provide for them? Were they a threat, or a boon? Would they enrich us, or leech away our identity? Then, amidst the noise, a photograph made everyone stop. Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Kurdish-Syrian boy, lay facedown in the wet sand, in T-shirt, shorts and a pair of trainers that could sit in the palm of one’s hand. The photograph of his lifeless body would define and transcend our age, just as Nick Ut’s image of Phan Thị Kim Phúc, naked and screaming after a napalm attack, captured the Vietnam war and the eternities of civilian suffering, just as Jeff Widener’s unknown Tank Man defined not just the Tiananmen Square uprising, but the individual’s power against authority. In the early hours of 2 September, Kurdi and his family boarded an inflatable boat on Turgutreis Beach near Bodrum, Southern Turkey. Sixteen people boarded a boat designed for eight, trying to reach the Greek island of Kos, about 2.5 miles across the Mediterranean ocean. The boat left in the dead of night, in an attempt to evade coastguards, and capsized about five minutes after casting off. Kurdi, his brother Galib and mother Rehana all drowned. His father survived.
The image was taken, at around six in the morning, by Turkish photographer Nilufer Demir, one of three reporters working the Bodrum coastline, trying to share images of refugees as they prepared to sail. In the hours after the image of Kurdi was posted online, retweets by a handful of journalists swelled to an average of 53,000 tweets per hour. It appeared on 20m screens around the world in 12 hours (according to new research from Sheffield University), galvanising the public in ways that hours of television broadcasts and thousands of print inches failed to do. After the surge on social media, Kurdi appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the world. Alan Kurdi’s death was quickly appropriated by ISIL, who used his corpse to claim God - or their God - will punish those who dare leave the Caliphate. ISIL told their followers that those that fled their rule were apostates whose souls would enter hell on death.
Kurdi’s journey to Europe was, on the surface, a safer bet than many refugees. Photographer Massimo Sestini accompanied the Italian navy on a rescue mission in June 2014, photographing from the air the intensely packed boats that took migrants and refugees from North Africa to the Italian shores. One such boat capsized, killing 360 people. This photograph was of a boat containing more than 500 people. Although taken last year, the image was the catalyst for Sestini’s Where Are You? project, ongoing throughout this year, which aims to find and learn the story of each person on that boat.
For crossing the ocean is only the start. Dan Kitwood, photographing for Getty, showed a snake of refugees, trailing past the horizon, as they walked a railroad track at the Serbian border with Hungary. These were a small fraction of the 4,000 refugees estimated to arrive in Serbia and Macedonia every day, in what’s now known as the Balkan Route. Echoing the chilling significance of railways during the Holocaust, it was an image freighted with history.
Working for The New York Times, on September 16, Sergey Ponomarev photographed a bloodied man holding his child and running from Hungarian riot police as they fired teargas at the Horgos border crossing in Serbia, the literal edge of the European Union. The clashes came as Hungary’s government decided to seal its borders to migrants. “We hope that the messages we have been sending migrants for a long time have reached them,” Gyorgy Bakondi, an aide to Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary told the newspaper. “Don’t come. Because this route doesn’t lead where you want to go.”
Hungary’s charity wasn’t replicated across Europe. Of the world’s leaders, none have responded to the refugee crisis with the clarity of purpose of Angela Merkel. Michael Kappeler’s picture of Merkel, arms wide as she lays forth to Barack Obama at the G-7 summit, captures the world’s most powerful, yet enduringly enigmatic, woman. Late this summer, Merkel announced Germany would open its doors to hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants who hoped to make the country their home. “It was an audacious act that, in a single motion, threatened both to redeem Europe and endanger it, testing the resilience of an alliance formed to avoid repeating the kind of violence tearing asunder the Middle East by working together,” Time magazine wrote when awarding Merkel their Person of the Year.
Paris, one of the most iconic cities in the world, was victim to two major terrorist attacks this year. On January 7, a CCTV camera showed two masked gunmen, both French nationals with connections to extremist groups in Syria and Yemen, after they had stormed the office of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine. They killed 12 people, including the paper’s top editor, Stephane Charbonnier. Five others were critically injured. Two police officers were killed, including one, pleading for his life at almost pointblank range, on a suburban pavement. Along with the coordinated attacks on November 13, which killed 130 people, Paris has endured the worst attacks in the country since the Nazi invasion in 1945.
Europe was in no way the only victim of Islamic fundamentalism. On April 27, Emmanuel Arewa, working for Getty, photographed a handful of the near 700 hostages held by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram, after Nigerian troops advanced through the Sambisa forest. Arewa photographed the basic, unimpeachable dignity of these women, many no more than teenagers, as they queued to collect donated clothes at the Malkohi refugee camp in outside the Northern Nigerian city of Yola. Boko Haram responded by bombing the camp in September, killing seven.
There were other signs of hope this year. Gay men and women, in America and across Europe, were allowed to marry the person they love for the first time. The moment was symbolised by the White House being lit up the rainbow colours of Gay Pride, photographed by Drew Angerer on June 26 after the United States Supreme Court ruled in favour of gay marriage, overturning a 1971 Minnesota Supreme Court ruling to state that same-sex marriage was in fact not a violation of the US Constitution.
In November, a Reuters stringer spread an image of Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi dropping a folded piece of paper into a plastic box. The pro-democracy leader had waited to do this for 25 years, much of that time spent as a political prisoner under house-arrest in her own country. She is now incumbent president of Burma, her party taking 86 per cent of the country’s vote.
Other images went viral, sparking huge progressive debates, like the photograph of Walter Palmer, the dentist from Minnesota who, on 1 July, wounded Cecil the Lion with an arrow from a crossbow, tracked him for 40 hours and then killed him with a rifle. Cecil was, at the time, roaming in Hwange National Park in Matabeleland North, Zimbabwe. Although Palmer was never charged, the established industry that caters for people like him is under more pressure now than ever before.
Lastly, we must recognise the image of Walter Scott fleeing police officer Michael Thomas Slager in the moments before he was fatally shot in Charleston, South Carolina, which caught the dark heart of modern America just a few months before Dylann Roof’s mass shooting during a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the same city. Feidin Santana, a passing citizen who happened to capture the image, told reporters: “I just took my phone out so the they could be aware someone was present, so there was a witness out there.” If there is a better description of the enduring power of photography, I’m yet to find one.