Comunicar Journal Blog

The Transformative Image: Revisiting an Old-school Concept

Andres et al. provide an insightful analytical framework to examine how the photograph of Aylan Kurdi engenders social transformation on the Syrian refugee crisis. The iconographic and iconological analyses in the article verify the power of visual images to provoke strong emotions—by mobilizing social conscience, they induce solidarity. “An image for solidarity is an image that can be appropriated by citizens to enable them to express themselves, to denounce and to recreate” (Andres et al. 2016). The process in which the widely circulated Aylan photograph turns into a solidarity movement operates in a grassroot communication model, in which citizens participate by engaging the image in a chain of resignification.

The semiotization of the Aylan photograph must proceed within the rules of the medium—photography—which Andres et al. have addressed in their iconographic analysis. The way in which photography is produced and reproduced is central to the medium’s ability to make meaning and induce social change. With that in mind, Walter Benjamin’s conceptualization of photography as mechanical reproduction of art presents three aspects that complement with Andres et al.’s framework.

Benjamin’s conceptualization is located within the context of photography, by capturing still images, reproduces real life situations, which in this case is the historical context of Aylan washed up drowned on a beach in Turkey amid the Syrian refugee crisis.

The first aspect of pictorial reproduction that has to do with the capacity to induce solidarity is that photography can bring out aspects of the original that is unattainable with the eye yet accessible through the lens. When one encounters the Aylan photograph, the naked eye may not perceive the full emotional impact one does through the lens, due to the lack of photographic technique such as the emphatic subjectivity of the low angle and the sense of impotence induced by the shallow depth of field. Such process reproduction of the scene assists in amplifying the beholders’ emotional response, thus mobilizing social conscience.

Second, technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself. The wide circulation of the Aylan image is attained largely due to the reproducibility of the photograph. And without vast dissemination channels such as social media, the image may only be seen on a few newspapers. Reproducibility of the photograph coupled with dynamic media networks make the image available in the public sphere, which is prerequisite for solidarity.

Third, mechanical reproduction permits replicas to meet the beholder in his own particular situation. Although reappropriation of the image sparks ethical debates, it contributes to the formation of solidarity when audiences actively engage with the image within their own contexts. An individualized view of the issue makes it meaningful to every beholder in their own distinct approaches. The bottom-up assemblage of individual will burgeons into a collective solidarity movement.

In Benjamin’s original conceptualization, mechanical reproduction was shed in a negative light for its destruction of the original’s “authenticity.” Today, pictorial reproduction becomes central to positive social change, with its unique capacity to get “closer” with citizens, ultimately leading to meaningful social action.


(Image taken from Thierry Ehrmann’s flickr)


  1. de-Andres, Susana, Eloisa Nos-Aldas, and Agustin Garcia-Matilla. “The Transformative Image. The Power of a Photograph for Social Change: The Death of Aylan.” Comunicar 47 (2016). Accessed March 13, 2016. doi: 10.3916/C47-2016-03
  2. Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility.” In Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen, 675-94. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.