The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

So Charlie Hebdo drew the drowned Syrian boy. Was it wrong?

(used by permission of MIKE PETERS / 2015)

POLITICAL CARTOONISTS draw children in peril so often — it’s the art of the deftly pulled heartstring to embody a crisis — that it’s almost a metaphorical tool of the trade, if not a trope. A malnourished child stands for an entire epidemic, or a kid in the cross-hairs humanizes the innocence that falls victim to militaristic violence. We can all sympathize, and grieve, and care.

But how is such an image’s effect changed when the child has a virally published name, and a still-fresh universal association? Cartoonists traffic in the metaphoric manipulation of symbols, of course, but how are the rules of satiric engagement altered when the child is already a symbol infused with white-hot politics and deeply poignant discomfort and loss?

In this case, the boy is Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian-crisis refugee whose body washed up in Turkey just two weeks ago, and the pain of witnessing that image, as it were, is still fresh. The photo was taken by Nilufer Demir of Turkey’s Dogan News Agency, after a boat capsized and 3-year-old Aylan and his 5-year-old brother, Galip, both drowned. Sometimes putting a face to a catastrophe can change minds; with this photo, it is a body that has changed hearts.

Demir’s photo, as we know, spread quickly on social media, and sparked cries for more international and humanitarian efforts to prevent as many such deaths as possible. The picture is so powerful that decades from now, in the history e-books, this may well be the image that persists to represent the crisis — not unlike how Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut’s image of then-9-year-old Kim Phuc, running naked down a road during a napalm attack, came to symbolize the horrors of the Vietnam War visited upon civilians. (That image, for the record, would be invoked to poignant effect nearly two decades later, by Pulitzer-winning Chicago Sun-Times cartoonist Jack Higgins.)

And now, with that same swiftness of social media, Charlie Hebdo’s appropriation of Aylan Kurdi as symbol has stirred a world of controversy.

Charlie Hebdo has a long history of being divisive within France’s borders, of course, but that scope changed profoundly upon the massacre at its Paris offices this past January, when 12 people were slain, including five cartoonists, after the satirical weekly continued to run artwork depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad specifically, and mocking many Muslims in general. A half-year after Charlie Hebdo itself became a symbol and “Je suis Charlie” became a cry of condemnation against such violence and a declaration of unity, the French weekly said in July that it would cease publishing cartoon depictions of Muhammad.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Charlie Hebdo has sworn off pointed cartoons that comment on religion and stir heated emotions. And how, for some, the hashtag of sentiment has swung to “#JeNeSuisPasCharlie.”

In recent days, Charlie Hebdo has printed cartoons that play with the power of Aylan as symbol. In one, a child lay presumably dead in the tide, with the caption, “So close to the finish…” — and a McDonald’s billboard behind the boy that reads, in French: “Two children’s meals for the price of one.” And in another Hebdo cartoon, a figure who evokes Christ walks on water while a child nearby has drowned; the words “Christians walk on water” are set in opposition to “Muslim children sink,” with the caption: “Proof That Europe Is Christian.”

The cartoons have naturally stirred a loud furor, with an initial spasm of critics interpreting the artwork as being anti-Muslim — which then gave way to other viewers understanding that the visual commentary was critical of the larger European response to the refugee crisis.

No matter how one interprets (or misinterpets) these cartoons, a larger question becomes: By invoking Aylan Kurdi, and so soon, did Charlie Hebdo cross a line of decency in the eyes of a majority of readers, no matter their personal views on the larger geopolitics? Not that Hebdo typically gives a whit about what is and is not “decent,” but how does that debate relate to how other editorial cartoonists are handling this issue?


Jen Sorensen just returned from where Aylan lay dead.

“Strangely enough, I was just on the beach where Aylan drowned. I spent time there when I visited Turkey in June as a juror for the Aydin Doğan International Cartoon Competition,” Sorensen, the Herblock Prize-winning political cartoonist, tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “So I find that photo, and other images of refugees in Bodrum, particularly chilling.”

And Sorensen, as a gifted practitioner of visual metaphor, lends professional insight into her readings of the cartoons.

“While I did find other Charlie Hebdo cartoons to contain elements of bigotry, these seem to be mocking the callousness of Europe rather than the boy himself,” she tells Comic Riffs. “I believe the intention is to show sympathy for the plight of the refugees.”

While reading the work as sympathetic, Sorensen notes that she would not invoke Aylan how Hebdo did. “I can see how some people might view the legs poking up out of the water [in the Jesus Christ cartoon] as slightly too goofy a comedic trope for a tragic situation,” she tells Comic Riffs. “While I have not drawn Aylan myself, if I did, I would want to do it thoughtfully, as part of a poignant cartoon. It’s not an image that lends itself to jauntiness.”

Liza Donnelly, too, has spent recent days overseas. The political cartoonist/editor and New Yorker gag cartoonist has been at the fifth International Meeting of Press Cartoonists in Caen, France, where security was heightened considerably compared with previous meetings, in the wake of the Hebdo attack. And while Donnelly believes strongly in press freedoms, she also believes in drawing a personal line when sitting to draw editorial lines.

“The photo of Aylan Kurdi is extremely powerful,” Donnelly tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “I believe there is no reason for a cartoonist to ‘use’ it — we can find other ways to express concern and outrage at the Syrian crisis. And to use the imagery of Aylan in that photo to create a joke — to be honest, I find that very disturbing.

“But, that said,” she continues, “if people want to draw cartoons that make fun of a tragically dead child, they should of course have the freedom to do so.”

Mike Luckovich, the Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, weighed whether to use the refugee boy’s body as a symbol — and reasoned that it is a fitting image to invoke, even if he ultimately chose not to.

“I didn’t use the image. I had a rough sketch that used Aylan Kurdi to show the world’s indifference, but I ended up not drawing it,” Luckovich tells Comic Riffs. “It wasn’t because of the image of the drowned toddler, though. I just didn’t think it was a great cartoon.

“I think as an editorial cartoonist,” Luckovich continues, “using an image that’s become a worldwide symbol, even if sensitive, is completely appropriate.

That said, he believes the French weekly is wide open for another angle of criticism.

“I would not have done either of those Charlie Hebdo cartoons,” Luckovich tells The Post. “First, they’re both lousy ideas. And secondly, by using the powerful image of that dead little kid, they overwhelm whatever point they were trying to make in both cartoons.

“I know Charlie Hebdo is satirical, but there is good satire and bad satire,” he notes. “I think both of these cartoons fall into the latter category, especially the one with the billboard of the Ronald McDonald-like character.”

Jack Ohman, the editorial cartoonist at the Sacramento Bee, underscores the necessary context when drawing deceased people, especially children.

“I have not employed that particular image” of Aylan, says Ohman, the outgoing president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. “I couldn’t rule it out, because there are ways to do this and make a legitimate point. That’s what we do.

“I have done cartoons that have used a dead person. For example, I drew a cartoon about Robert McNamara a long time ago using the Kent State shooting victim,” Ohman continues. “I think, in context, I could see where some of these cartoons are effective. … Use of children is a sensitive point. It’s important to take each cartoon in context. I think some of the criticism of these cartoons were clearly, deliberately misconstrued.”

Nikahang Kowsar, a Washington-based political cartoonist, has not employed Aylan’s image, either, but he appreciates why some of his colleagues have.

“I have not yet used Aylan in a cartoon — it was really heartbreaking and I couldn’t do it,” says Kowsar, who was once jailed in Iran for his cartoons critical of the nation’s religious leaders. “But I certainly love many cartoons that demonstrated the depth of the Syrian refugee crisis and the human catastrophe by showing Aylan as a victim of the devastating War, and a victim of a choice that others have made.”

Then Kowsar, who is on the board of the Northern Virginia-based Cartoonists Rights Network International, then illustrates what he might have rendered.

“I would have drawn president Obama preaching to Aylan’s dead body, telling him why the U.S. chose to do intervene in Libya but do nothing in Syria,” Kowsar tells me. “And Aylan’s spirit would have responded, ‘I know, you needed the Iran deal…that’s why.’ ”

Those words are powerful. But would their context have been misinterpreted, or roundly criticized, had Kowsar actually drawn Aylan’s small, lifeless body?
”A Visual commentary by Austrian cartoonist Marian Kamensky invokes the powerful image of Aylan Kurdi, as published on Cartoon Movement. (courtesy of Cartoon Movement 2015)