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Photographer who found Syrian toddler dead on Turkish beach: ‘I was petrified’

A paramilitary police officer carries the body of a child that washed up on a beach in Turkey on Wednesday after a boat carrying migrants, thought to be Syrians, sank while trying to reach Greece. (Dogan News Agency via AP)

Aylan Kurdi was already dead when the shutter clicked.

The 3-year-old began his Wednesday dressed in a red shirt, blue shorts and shoes, set for his family's short but dangerous sea journey from Turkey to Greece. He was with his father, mother and brother, 5-year-old Galip. His day ended with him face-down in the sand — and a picture of his lifeless body turning into the latest symbol of Syria's war and Europe's struggle to handle a spiraling refugee crisis.

A photographer-reporter near the Turkish resort of Bodrum, a jumping-off point for Syrian refugees seeking entry into Europe via Greece's outer islands, captured the scene as an official approached the body.

[My sons 'slipped from my hands,' says father of drowned Syrian boys]

Nilufer Demir of the Dogan News Agency explained in an interview published in English by Hurriyet Daily News that she stumbled upon the boy while observing a group of Pakistanis who were similarly trying to reach Greece.

"While witnessing the tragedy, suddenly we noticed the lying, lifeless bodies," she said. "We recognized the bodies belonged to toddlers. We were shocked; we felt sorrow for them. The best thing to do was to make this tragedy heard."

“Galip was lying 100 meters away from his brother," she added. "I noticed they didn’t have any life jackets on them, any arm floats, anything to help them to float in the water. This image shows how dramatic the incident was.”

The pictures quickly hit a nerve, shifting the global outrage machine into overdrive.

They were shared widely on Twitter and Facebook. They drew a comparison to the well-known 1993 image of a vulture near a starving child in Sudan. Some etched illustrations motivated by the picture. Others shared images of the brothers in happier times, including one with their father, who survived — only to mourn his wife and boys.

[Why I shared the picture of the dead Syrian boy.]

Initial reports citing a relative said the family had previously tried, unsuccessfully, to immigrate to Canada. Officials there launched an investigation into the matter as world leaders began to speak out, compelled by the pictures of Aylan.

The images touched off a debate on whether they should have even be published, pitting those demanding respect for the dead against those who see the pictures as a way of confronting Europe's oft-criticized response to the refugee crisis. And they have received significantly more attention than many other gruesome scenes from Syria's war over the past few years.

That the pictures of Aylan punctured a news cycle long tired of Syria-related images is a tragic feat. That they have got the decision-makers talking is a wonder.

Demir hopes the images will serve as a call to action. "I have photographed and witnessed many migrant incidents since 2003 in this region," she said in the interview. "Their deaths, their drama. I hope from today this will change."

Read more:

Britain takes in so few refugees from Syria they would fit on a subway train

Why the language we use to talk about refugees matters so much

As tragedies shock Europe, a bigger refugee crisis looms in the Middle East

Abdullah Kurdi, the father of two young Syrian brothers who drowned while attempting to reach the Greek island of Kos, tells his story. (Video: Reuters)