Opinion: The pictures of the year 2015 | Opinion | DW | 25.12.2015
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Opinion: The pictures of the year 2015

People remember distinctive images. A picture can only become the image of the year if it also makes a difference - and such an assessment can only be made from a distance, says Felix Steiner.

Images are rarely discussed in editorial meetings with the level of intensity experienced on the 2nd or 3rd of September 2015. This did not only occur at Deutsche Welle but also in many other media companies. At the end of the day, the whole world knew three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who drowned during his family's attempt to cross the sea from Turkey to Kos in a rubber dinghy.

An image that stirred emotions

The death of little Aylan is a disgrace; Europe should be ashamed of itself. This image allegedly served as a wake-up call for a return to Europe's humanistic values - at least that is what is written in editorials and opinion pieces published beneath the large format photograph of the deceased child.

But the emotional outbursts of senior editors lasted briefly; the alarm bell's chiming has faded. Had it been heeded, the EU would have long ago chartered ferries in Turkish and Libyan ports to take refugees safely to Europe, without the dangers entailed in hiring smugglers. Journalists and human rights activists have been calling for such measures for years now. But no politician in the EU has the courage and backbone to take this step. Politicians think of what every economist learns at school: supply creates demand. Thus, it is believed that ferry ports would attract even greater numbers of people willing to migrate.

No lasting impact

The image greatly hyped as the picture of the year on the day of its mass media nascence has, at best, triggered a fleeting debate on journalistic ethics and whether such images should be widely published or not. But its impact did not prove lasting.

Steiner Felix Kommentarbild App

DW's Felix Steiner

The image that was named UNICEF photo of the year conveys a different view of the refugee crises (see picture at top of this article): European police incite panic, fear and suffering - these pictures taken in the summer of 2015 appealed to the conscience of affluent citizens in northern Europe more than corpses from the sea did. A greater guilt trip was instilled in the public by social media posts of photos from border regions and train stations in southeastern Europe.

Until now, Angela Merkel has not clearly stated what specifically compelled her to open the German borders on the evening of September 4 and to allow the refugees in overcrowded trains in Budapest to travel to Germany. Maybe she will let us know one day when she publishes her memoirs. But the photos UNICEF has selected as prize winners, in addition to the numerous television images at that time from Hungary, Serbia and Macedonia, may have played a considerable part. They certainly motivated countless people in Munich and other Bavarian cities to take relief supplies to railway stations and warmly welcome the refugees there.

The images of welcoming culture

Lo and behold - Germany is open, warm-hearted and very different than the other countries the refugees traveled through. That was the message conveyed by images from Munich. They were only outdone by the selfies that Syrian refugees took ​​together with the German chancellor at her visit to a reception center on September 11.

More than anything else, such photos have become a symbol for this year in Germany in two ways. Firstly, there's the way Germany's politicians have decided to promote a good-guy image, as in, "We're the good guys, the helpers, who have broken with all the bad traditions of Germany's past." And secondly, there's the impact exerted on many European neighbors' views on Germany and refugees: "You Germans have practically summoned them here, so just take them in and leave us alone!" Those in government circles in various EU member states openly speak of a "German problem." One thing is certain: the power of these images of the year 2015 will continue to exert influence in the coming year - and that is why they deserve the recognition they have been given.

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