Story behind Ai Weiwei's Aylan Kurdi image and interview

Gayatri Jayaraman
Gayatri JayaramanFeb 01, 2016 | 23:02

Story behind Ai Weiwei's Aylan Kurdi image and interview

By now the image of Chinese activist artist Ai Weiwei posing as the toddler Aylan Kurdi has gone around the world. Some, like David Batty of The Guardian called it “lazy, cheap and crass”. Others, like political scientist Ian Bremmer simply summed it up as his statement on the refugee crisis that faces Europe.

Chinese activist artist Ai Weiwei posing as the toddler Aylan Kurdi. [Photo courtesy: Rohit Chawla/India Today]

Neither are explicitly true. The reason disinformation abounds is that the now globally recognisable image was supposed to accompany the story that I, for the India Today Group, wrote last week as part of our visit to meet Ai Weiwei when we picked him for "International Spotlight 2016" for the inaugural edition of the India Today Art Awards 2016.


The story could not make it to print as the photographer missed the print deadline owing to an inability to upload his images. The image made its way instead to the India Today booth at the India Art Fair from where it went viral.

Art should, of course, be able to stand on its own, but this particular image is not "art": it is a reported news image. I would like to clarify that Ai Weiwei was not responsible for it, the India Today group photographer Rohit Chawla requested him to pose.


To put this in perspective, when Chawla requested Ai Weiwei to pose in a refugee tent, AWW replied, "How can I? I have never lived in one and I cannot without asking permission of the people who live in it." The photographer insisted on a photo on the beach, promising AWW a cover image.

AWW replied: “Covers do not matter to me. I do this because it seems to give you creative satisfaction and I understand what creative satisfaction is to an artist.” We clearly could not travel to the original beach in Turkey, but since the photographer wanted to recreate the scene, it was done on a beach on the outskirts of Mytilene.


It was two degrees in Lesvos that day with biting cold winds. AWW pulled out an aluminium foil to lay down on the pebbles. And he suggested a better angle and better light for the photographer to get his shot. It took all of 15 minutes.

I say this to clarify that this was AWW fulfilling a photographer’s conceptual shot and it was not as it is being portrayed, a publicity gimmick planned and pushed out by AWW and his team with a preconceived agenda.


The image is indeed powerful and has gone viral because it is meant to be an empathetic statement - a "Je Suis Charlie Hebdo" of sorts – in which AWW consented to put himself in the shoes of the refugees if only to lend himself to the cause of drawing attention to their plight.

Much of Europe is discussing bringing the borders down, and with electric fences being put up, refugees being attacked in Sweden, children being trafficked and even in the first port of call Lesvos, barbed wire in triplicate going around camps, Ai Weiwei’s acquiesance to that pose is like saying, "What if it was me?" It is also just one image in a day full of news and images that have not been released by the India Today magazine yet.


I think much of the outrage at AWW’s pose comes from believing that that one image is all AWW has to offer. It comes so easy to him. To just lie there, have an image clicked and just walk off. And this is the damage of the image without the story. It is not. It is currently a decontextualised image in the way that social media decontextualises everything and yet manages to make everything relevant to all of us.

When we arrived in Lesvos, delayed by fog, having missed two connecting flights from New Delhi and begging and pleading and arguing with Qatar Airways to get us there in time for our 9am appointment, we arrived with just one hour to spare at 7.50am.

AWW's team said they could not meet us at the designated appointment spot as the boats were coming in. Please note they did not say we could come and meet them as the boats came in. They didn’t really care. They had work to do. We could join them if we wished.

We dashed across the island at breakneck speed and arrived on the shore as a boat full of refugees pulled up. The fourth boat of the morning. AWW was not there to greet us. A team member who was recording the arrival pointed him out to us.


He was at the helm of the volunteer crew helping them off the boat. His sneakers were wet, his pant soaked, but he was holding refugees shivering with hypothermia setting off the boat and he didn’t seem to notice. I stood back till he was finished and my entire interview with him is filled with the puffs and pants of my trying to keep up with him and intersperse the day trailing him with questions.

I asked him where his studio was. Weiwei pointed to the shores of Mytilene. "The sea shore is my studio; the world is my studio," he said.

I asked him how long he was there. "For as long as it takes." I asked him what he was doing. “I don’t know yet.” Weiwei was not being difficult. He had simply submitted himself to the process. To me, a reporter in the wake of that uncaring colossus, he was almost Gandhian in that moment.

At several points during the interview he made it clear it was not a choice to him. It was not simply a project. He was not there as a voyeur. He needed to be there as part of a process, the lessons from his own life pushing him to do what he can in this moment.

I didn’t see him stop to eat during the day nor sit down except in his car when going from sea shore to the refugee registration camp. At one point I couldn’t keep up and so he stood still for about three minutes so that I could catch my breath and speak. He pulled chocolates out of his pockets for the children and shoved them through the barbed wires. I asked if I could do the same with the bars I was carrying for my travel.

And let me not appropriate him. He spoke to everyone who asked him questions or for selfies. He asked questions of the young volunteers and refugees. He spent his day observing, touching materials, asking, seeking, quietly documenting.

He didn’t even know we were declaring him "International Spotlight" until later in the day when the photographer told him. We had asked to be there and he let us in. “I am glad to see you took the trouble to come. It is important to understand the situation on the ground,” he told me.

Among the questions he answered were: "Why is art a powerful tool for political statements?" "Why should something that happens in Syria and Turkey and Greece affect the rest of us?" And "Who gets to define who is eligible for refugee status and aid?"

So I would request you to read the story India Today will carry next week before you make up your mind about who AWW is or why he does what he does.

To me, those 48 hours with him on the island were simply inspirational and bring on the realisation that for some people, to not be present when a crisis is on, is not a choice.

Long after the cameras leave, AWW will be there at the helm of a boat getting the refugees off, as he has been quietly since Christmas. Perhaps it is a function of who he has become that nothing he does can ever be done quietly. And so he has learned to use that to draw attention to a cause, rather than to himself. And if the bulbs go off for him, he will place himself in the situation, so that they may be lit.

None of that is easy. It’s wilful submission to a process. For AWW, if you won’t look at what he’s pointing at, he puts himself in it so that you do see it. Please look what he’s pointing at.

Last updated: February 03, 2016 | 16:49
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