migrant boy washed ashore gorani pkg _00012511.jpg
Image shows 3-year-old who washed ashore
02:08 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

A Turkish photographer snapped now-famous images of a dead migrant boy

Nilufer Demir: "This is the only way I can express the scream of his silent body"

CNN  — 

Nilufer Demir was crossing a beach in Bodrum, Turkey, on Wednesday when she saw him: a small boy in a red T-shirt, blue pants and black shoes, lying face-down in the sand.

Waves lapped at his lifeless face.

She froze.

“There was nothing left to do for him. There was nothing left to bring him back to life,” she told CNN Turk, a CNN sister network based in Turkey.

So Demir, a correspondent and photographer with Turkey’s Dogan News Agency, did the only thing she could: She raised her camera and began shooting.

“There was nothing to do except take his photograph … and that is exactly what I did,” she said Thursday in a live on-air interview. “I thought, ‘This is the only way I can express the scream of his silent body.’ “

That silent scream is now reverberating around the world. Demir’s images of the drowned refugee boy, 2-year-old Aylan Kurdi, have appeared on front pages and news sites worldwide and put a grim face on the migrant crisis that is engulfing Europe. They’ve also been amplified by social media, where illustrations of Aylan’s body have been turned into poignant memes.

Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, described the pictures as “haunting.”

The BBC even asked, “Has one picture shifted our view of migrants?”

The boy and his family were Kurds from war-torn Syria trying to cross the Aegean Sea to Greece, according to CNN partner CTV. Twelve people died when their small boat, crowded with refugees fleeing the Middle East, capsized in rough seas.

Demir, 29, has worked for Dogan News Agency, also known as DHA, since she was a teenager. Based in Bodrum, she responded to reports of activity at the beach and discovered that several bodies had washed up on shore.

Once she grew close, “we saw that they were dead children’s bodies,” she said.

She and her DHA colleagues found Aylan’s body first. Soon after, a short distance down the beach, they came across the body of his brother Galip, 4.

“He was laying on the beach the same way. He also had his shirt, his shorts and shoes on. They had nothing – no life vest, no arm floats, no life buoy to keep them floating on the water,” Demir said. “This actually revealed how tragic that moment was.”

Farther down the beach, they found a third body: that of an 11-year-old boy who was not related to the two brothers. Like the others, he was not wearing a life vest.

Demir said she later learned that the body of Aylan and Galip’s mother, Rehen Kurdi, was found on another Turkish beach 150 miles away.

“I thought the only thing for me to do was to take their photographs to make sure Turkey and the world sees this,” she said.

The boys’ father was the only Kurdi family member to survive the ill-fated boat trip.

“I don’t want anything else from this world,” Abdullah Kurdi told CNN on Thursday. “Everything I was dreaming of is gone. I want to bury my children and sit beside them until I die.”

Demir has been covering the refugee crisis for months and has photographed many dead migrants. But none has had the impact of her images of Aylan.

“I didn’t think it would bring this much attention when I was taking the photograph,” she told CNN Turk. “However, with the pain I felt when I saw Aylan, the only thing on my mind was to pass along this to the public. I didn’t think anything else. I just wanted to show their tragedy.”

CNN’s Hande Atay-Alam contributed to this story.