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On the morning of September 2, 2015, photojournalist Nilüfer Demir captured the image of a drowned three-year-old Syrian refugee, Alan Kurdi, washed ashore on a beach in Bodrum, Turkey. Spread virally through Twitter, the image quickly achieved iconographic status, becoming a symbol of multiple ‘crises’: the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean, the Syrian civil war, the failure of European Union (EU) protection, et cetera. Over a year later, the name Alan Kurdi remains familiar and is often invoked; his image is still a symbol for the crises in the Mediterranean. Given this sustained presence, it is opportune to look back with the benefit of hindsight at why the image of Alan’s dead body washed ashore went viral in the first place. Why did Alan’s image reach and resonate with an audience of millions, among countless other harrowing images capturing the crises? Existing literature on images of suffering offers accounts of why certain images invoke more responsiveness than others. However, these accounts have been insufficiently applied to the discursive space of Twitter. While we understand the mechanisms of how the image went viral, we explore what it is about the medium of Twitter that enabled the image of Alan to reach viral status and equally fleeting substantive outcomes. This analysis of the Alan phenomenon—the photo, his story, its viral spread throughout Twitter, the conversations that ensued on Twitter, his sustained presence—provides insights into responsiveness to images of suffering and Twitter as a medium for social change.



Working paper


Refugee Studies Centre

Publication Date



RSC Working Paper Series, 121

Total pages



Alan Kurdi, Twitter, refugees, Syria, visual analysis, narrative